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Bestselling and critically acclaimed author Carol Edgarian immerses her readers in post-1906 earthquake San Francisco in VERA, a beautifully imagined coming-of-age drama.

When we meet Vera Johnson, she is a 15-year-old girl who, while no stranger to mischief and precociousness, can see straight through foolishness and malarkey. Both an orphan and a bastard, she takes nothing for granted and is highly trained in the skills of people-watching and determining a person’s motivations and tells. Raised by a superstitious Swedish woman with an affinity for whiskey, Vera is actually the secret daughter of Rose, San Francisco’s most cunning and notorious madam and bordello owner. Though Vera sees her mother only a few times a year, she and her adoptive family --- Morie, a widow, and Morie's daughter Piper, nicknamed Pie --- live on Rose's income. For 15 years, Vera has straddled two worlds: one where she is the black sheep of her perfect blonde Swedish family, and the other where expensive silk dresses and tickets to the opera appear as if by magic.

"Inventive and poignant, VERA is full of heart-stopping descriptions of catastrophe and tragedy, but equally gorgeous and moving scenes of renewal and reinvention."

At 15, Vera is starting to feel split in half by the great divides in her life. On the one hand, she knows that Morie cares for her as long as she is paid to do so, and on the other, she feels an intimate closeness to her “sister” Pie, the only person who really notices and cares for her. She longs to join her mother’s world and get to know the real Rose, but she knows the woman to be cruel and uncaring. She also has long been at odds with Rose’s ever-present butler, Tan, a Cantonese man who seems to agree with Rose that Vera is unworthy of her attention. At the same time that Vera is starting to come of age, her beloved city of San Francisco is beginning to buckle: the mayor, Eugene Schmitz, a gorgeous and corrupt man, is finally being taken to court for his actions, and the town that was built on gold and prostitutes is now turning its nose up at its rough beginnings.

Nine days later, on the evening of a legendary performance by tenor Enrico Caruso, the Great Earthquake of 1906 levels the city. Vera, once desperate for independence and direction, is forced to reckon with the reality that comes with it. Writing in vivid, heartbreaking prose, Edgarian describes both the immediate destruction and the chaos that follows. Describing the demolition of Vera’s home, Edgarian writes, “In the moonlit shadows, my bureau danced foot to foot then fell on its face; the bookcase leaped, tripped on the rug, and crashed. The windows bent in their sleeves, straightened audaciously, then burst.” In a mere 45 seconds --- but an eternity of emotion --- Vera’s two worlds collide, and she and Pie find themselves homeless, motherless and thrust into the very center of not only the earthquake, but the many issues plaguing early 1900s San Francisco.

With refugee tents popping up all around, and looters and thieves attempting to turn a profit while the city sorts through the rubble, Vera and Pie head toward Rose’s “gold house,” a stunning mansion in one of San Francisco's wealthy neighborhoods. Unable to find Rose, Vera takes over the house, forming a tenuous business arrangement with Tan and attempting to sort out the wreckage of her life while dealing with a grieving Pie, trying to keep her real identity a secret and rebuild herself after the greatest disaster of her lifetime. The pain she has felt at being abandoned by Rose takes on a new intensity as she sets the entirety of her mother’s home right, marveling at the gorgeous silks and feeling gutted by the secret collection of baby clothes and toys.

At the same time, Vera’s bond with Tan exposes her to the racial divides plaguing her city as the white survivors of the quake begin to turn on their Chinese neighbors and the corrupt businessmen of the city make plans to take over Chinatown. With unscrupulous politicians, desperate prostitutes and even a heartwarming love interest rounding out the background, Vera comes of age explosively, brilliantly and unforgettably.

VERA is told in the voice of an elderly Vera --- now the oldest survivor of the earthquake --- as she recounts the tragedy that made her who she is. Edgarian’s use of first-person voice is jarring, at times even confusing, but always immediate and unflinching. This is without a doubt one of the most richly imagined works of historical fiction that I have ever read. Although the narrative is intensely character-driven, Edgarian takes no shortcuts when it comes to creating an immersive, nearly cinematic world. If the words “bordello” and “earthquake” don’t grab you, I suspect that nothing will. But even if you’re not sure about this one, I recommend giving it a try.

Inventive and poignant, VERA is full of heart-stopping descriptions of catastrophe and tragedy, but equally gorgeous and moving scenes of renewal and reinvention.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 26, 2021

by Carol Edgarian

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501157531
  • ISBN-13: 9781501157530