There are two heroines in Karen Joy Fowler's new novel Sister Noon. One is the city of San Francisco, the other a plain, unmarried society woman living there in the 1890s. In a cityscape of wildly unscrupulous tycoons, and women ranging across the entire spectrum of respectability, Lizzie Hayes carries on her quiet but intense struggles against society's oppressive efforts to confine her activities and define her being.
The special topography and architecture of the city on the bay, and the ups-and-downs of its even more unruly moral landscape in a famously decadent era, become the catalysts for the awakening of the novel's unlikely heroine, Lizzie Hayes. Passionate reader, repressed dreamer, fearful fussbudget and moth to the flame of the city's darker side, Lizzie oversees the finances of an orphanage filled with the throwaways of the merciless empire of capital that was California a century ago. She observes both the magnificence and the tawdriness of her metropolis with an absence of judgment and a desperate longing that mark her as a child of her time.
Only the San Francisco of the Gilded Age could have produced both the eccentric Teresa Bell, a prostitute-turned-millionaire's wife, or the formidable Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who passed for years as a white woman but became wealthy only after she revealed her "true" identity (the quotation marks are a necessity for an inveterate chameleon like Mrs. Pleasant). And only by the Golden Gate could two such women live together in the same house and haunt Lizzie Hayes with their inscrutable histories and their thrilling, terrifying suggestions that "you don't have to be the same person your whole life."
The magic of Fowler's portraiture frequently lies in its contradictions: "Mrs. Hallis was a Methodist with the face of a Botticelli. She believed in culpability, which was not the philosophy of most people with such lips."
Karen Joy Fowler is culpable in only one regard, and that is in conjuring the city and citizens of her novel with such concreteness that her readers gladly take her fable of Lizzie Hayes, spinster of San Francisco, as true (no quotations marks necessary).
Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.