THERE ARE WAYS to escape an earthquake that go beyond seeking shelter. The novel Vera by Carol Edgarian is the story of a 15-year-old in the wreckage of 1906 San Francisco driven by strong desires and unusual wit — traits that are useful for her survival but also threaten the core of her being.
Vera is the daughter of a successful powerbroker who sees her mother thrice a year. Her mother manages a brothel and refuses to raise a child in that kind of environment, so Vera is traded off to a hard-drinking foster family instead.
If mother and daughter share anything in common beyond the desire to live, it is the honesty with which they inhabit the unattractive truths of who they are. They steal, connive, hide secrets, and flee, but cannot lie about themselves. Their shortcomings are crucial in their struggle to survive in a city shattered by the quake and razed by fire; they are tenacious.
Vera moves with her foster sister Pie into a home away from the ruins and assumes the demanding role of a caretaker. There are food shortages, no electricity, no phone service, no water. In less than a minute, their San Francisco community has been “reduced to the hunter-gatherers of old. Cooking over fires, sleeping in coats, relieving themselves over buckets or in trenches.”
Vera accepts it without missing a beat. “I have been so determined I’d forgotten my fear,” she says, and it doesn’t feel like childlike courage. She does not stop to grieve the loss of others, does not take a moment to come to terms with the gravity of the disaster, the uncertainty of the future, or the loneliness plundering through her.
This yearning Vera feels — the true pulse of the story — is the desire to be accepted by her mother. Edgarian brilliantly captures the broken mother-daughter dynamic and Vera’s “booming, wanting heart” with the persistent backdrop of abandonment, longing, and displacement of 1906 San Francisco. The mother, however, is a shocking mystery.
Rose is fierce and ambitious. She is deeply invested in her world, so much so that her child is easily second place — or worse, has no place at all. She wants power and freedom; loving and nurturing would only interfere. It is a huge price Rose pays for what is a self-centered and shielded life, and, in the end, her daughter suffers most.
Edgarian is not asking the reader to accept these eccentricities, but merely to witness them.
The characters evolve after the quake, and there are moments of resolution just as the city is being restored from its ruins. There’s space for love to thrive: the wounded are nursed back to health, and broken relationships are mended. The pieces come together gracefully, as they should. But Rose is untouched. If she has any remorse, she doesn’t show it. She moves along as always — impervious, distant, and gone. Though it’s unsurprising, it does leave the reader questioning what a mother could possibly want or not want to so insistently choose a life without her daughter. Whatever she is chasing, does she ever find it, and if she does, is it worth all she leaves behind?
In this novel, San Francisco is a woman too — “young, bold, having burned to the ground five times and five times come back richer and more brazen.” As the people drive the plot, the place where it’s all happening is falling apart. People choose resilience in the devastation and get back up again and again. What is profound is how something as communal as one’s city can still feel utterly unhomely, its “wet wind” whispering, “Whoareyou, whoareyou, whoareyou?” It is likely what leads Vera to admit after the quake:
[A]s I journeyed through the wreckage, I felt lighter, even joyous […] I was no longer alone in my loneliness. The one thing I couldn’t stand to be — a hittebarn, a foundling — no longer mattered. The burden I had been carrying from birth was widespread. Everyone had lost her, I mean our city.
At what should be the worst moment in the novel, an unloved daughter, whose sole company is her mind, dares to feel something close to joy. We see real dislocation, a disturbance in convention, a holding space where relief and great suffering closely exist. And from this, Edgarian brings us to the edge with questions about love and power, underlying contentment, and the constant yielding of hard truths.
Not only is Vera’s honesty palpable, but it is also brutal. She does not hold back in saying, “For fifteen years I’d been waiting for a catastrophe greater than my birth. The quake gave it to me.”
If there’s a book that speaks urgently to a time of grief, resilience, wounding loneliness, and collective hope in one of the deadliest pandemics in history, it is Vera — a work to be cherished for what it uncovers in the pages and, possibly, the heart of the reader, one that brings a traveler to “the other side by a surprise or a marvel or a song.”