Orphaned at ten, Lily Malone and her older brother Fergus are shuffled off to St. Patrick’s Orphanage. Being the good Irish Catholic that she is, Lily dutifully obeys the nuns and learns the skills they teach her, but brother Fergus runs off to seek his fortune in California and is presumed dead at sea. At fifteen, Lily takes a position as between-stairs maid to the very rich Wallingford family, who being both newly rich and Catholic are not yet invited into the best homes – but they’ll do anything to get in, including selling their daughter off to a perverted English lord.

Lily works hard and resists all temptations to evil thrown in her path, that is until she’s seduced by the Wallingford’s younger son Jack, although it’s his best friend Brooks Chaffee who sets her heart afire. No surprise, but Lily eventually turns up pregnant and the Wallingfords give her a big check and passage to San Francisco with the promise of employment in their emporium there. Not everything is smooth sailing, and let’s just say a few unexpected things happen upon arrival,

“The streets of San Francisco were paved with mud and broken dreams, and the gutters were just waiting, hungrily, yawning and gaping for the likes of Lily Malone!”

With a baby to feed and the cheap Chinese labor taking up all the menial jobs, Lily has little choice but to join the world’s oldest profession – although her friend Sophie Delage has the smarts to turn Lily into the most sought after, highest priced whore in the city – Lily Cigar. Successful she may be, but Lily is not one to accept her lot in life, and she dreams of making enough money to start a better life in the country where she can live quietly with her daughter. Now you know there’s a whole lot more to it than that, but I’m not going to spill the beans – read it for yourself. Lily faces a lot of ups and downs and challenges in her long life, and the greatest of all during the 1906 earthquake (sniff). Through it all she keeps true to her pure and honest nature, and always the good Irish Catholic girl at heart.

“She had knowingly sinned and been paid for it. God hadn’t struck her dead, and if the angels were weeping for her, Lily could not hear them.”

Don’t let that scare you off though, Lily is not the irritating Pollyanna that you might think. The author’s writing is excellent and very lyrical at times, somewhat surprising for a male author,

“…the fires that burned in him were bright pure fires that did not burn but only made a new alchemy of love in whose dear crucible dark dreams and secrets were magically transformed into a new and golden thing, a strong and happy cage of love that promised to hold them both, together, always.”

Sigh. And don’t you just want to know who the man is who finally captures Lily’s heart? Or rather, she captures his wounded heart. I loved loved loved this book, and it’s an absolute must read for fans of big fat sagas. Lily’s story hooked me from the get-go and I couldn’t stop turning the pages until it was over. Don’t let the lurid cover or the prostitute angle scare you off either, any sex in this book is very very tame, especially by today’s standards. Out of print, but well worth hunting down and don’t forget to check your library – mine had a copy.