“I sometimes wondered what it would have been like to be raised a normal girl,” says the narrator of Carol Edgarian’s novel Vera. “But that was not my story.”
It is 1906, and Vera Johnson is being raised in a “respectable” household by a widowed Swedish woman pretending to be her mother. Vera’s real mother, however, is Rose, the madam of San Francisco's most infamous brothel. Rose has kept Vera a secret for nearly 15 years while continuing to provide for her financially. Then the destructive San Francisco earthquake happens, shaking more than the ground beneath their feet.
Readers may come to Vera for a tale about the San Francisco earthquake, or for a juicy novel about the women who populate society’s underbelly. But the novel is actually about motherhood and Vera’s struggle to be cared for as she needs to be. Vera yearns for her mother’s love and respect, and she doesn’t care about how Rose’s disreputable place in society could impact her own life.
The many memorable characters populating Vera may provide interesting fodder for book club conversations. Vera is feisty and chafes at the confines of life in this era; her refusal to conform brings to mind a more street-savvy Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. She is forced to be stronger than any 15-year-old should have to be. And Rose intriguingly demonstrates the tough choices a woman of her time must make in order to be truly free.
That said, the plot of Vera is overly complicated and features a bloated cast of characters. Rose’s employees and neighbors, as well as the city’s politicians, all have subplots to which Vera is only loosely connected. As a result, much of the novel feels like it’s scrambling to tie up loose ends rather than foregrounding the narrator’s own story.
Vera is an engaging novel that could have been executed more succinctly.