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Review: Vera, by Carol Edgarian
Scribner, 2021. 313 pp. $27

Fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson has two mothers, not just one, but neither will truly own her, and the word love doesn’t exist. Arrangement, yes; pawn in a power game, yes. But not love. The inconvenient child to Rose, a flamboyant, wildly successful brothel madam, Vera is farmed out as part of a business deal to Morie, a Swedish immigrant who lives in an aquavit bottle. Though not destitute, by any means—Rose, from a distance, sees to that–the Johnson household is impoverished in other, more important ways.

One is that Morie’s older daughter, Piper, called Pie, is everything Vera’s not: pretty, pliable, too weak to stand up for herself or anyone else, and retreats from tough decisions. Both girls suffer Morie’s whims, self-pity, and attacks with a hairbrush, but these injuries hurt Vera more. And with Pie around, who’ll pay any attention to mousy, cranky Vera?

However, circumstances are about to change—oh, are they ever—for this is San Francisco, and the year is 1906. One night, Enrico Caruso is in town to sing Carmen, and Rose springs for tickets for the Johnsons, though she stipulates that her guests aren’t allowed anywhere near her. That allows Vera the chance to roam, which she enjoys. Not only does she wander backstage (improbably) and catches sight of the great tenor before he goes on stage, she runs into Mayor Eugene Schmitz, an old acquaintance, who rightfully fears he’ll be indicted for graft the following day. San Francisco, corrupt to the core, is the sewer in which he swims.

But later that night, an earthquake devastates the city, and the world literally turns upside-down. Vera and Pie must flee their home and take refuge in Rose’s former brothel, which has largely escaped the disaster, though the madam herself is nowhere to be found. That the very idea of living there revolts Pie on moral grounds, despite the absence of any choice, tells you what you need to know about her. Vera, more adept and flexible, takes charge, with Tan, Rose’s Chinese cook, and his unpleasant, scheming daughter, Lifang, as occasional allies, more often enemies. Within weeks, Vera becomes someone well worth watching, indeed.

San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 earthquake (courtesy Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center, via US Geodetic Survey)

The transformation, realistically halting and well earned, makes Vera such a pleasure, and our heroine’s road is steeper than Nob Hill. Her relationship to Rose, as fraught and entrapping as any mother-daughter duo, takes front and center, appropriately so. But San Francisco is a significant character too, and how the city reacts to its tragedy—and who hopes to profit—forms an essential part of the narrative and Vera’s education. Of necessity, she grows up quickly on the outside, but within, retains her teenage longings, and, as such, represents the city’s coming of age as well, an impressive literary feat.

As Vera observes early on about her hometown, “To know her was to hold in your heart the up-downness of things. Her curves and hollows, her extremes. Her windy peaks and mini-climates. Her beauty, her trembling. Her greed.” That passage might apply to Rose as well, though Vera doesn’t know that yet.

So it is that Edgarian establishes Vera’s extraordinary, compelling voice, another pleasure of the novel. With a clear-sightedness that asks no pity yet takes up residence in your heart, this young girl freely acknowledges who she is, an unloved “special bastard,” belonging nowhere:

And though that fact pained me in my early youth, I came to see my place as unique. I was never trapped by pretty frocks and expectations of home and hearth that plagued the other girls I knew; I was a secret, bound by a secret, and if all that binding kept me apart, it also allowed me a certain freedom. My mind was my sole company, and when the old world ended and the new world began, my mind would have to see us through.

You can see the feminism, here—if Vera is about anything, it’s about women and power—but Edgarian doesn’t stop there. As her protagonist learns, aches, and explores the boundaries of a world that suddenly poses fewer restraints on her, the narrative repeatedly returns to what a woman can hope for. Love? Maybe, but not for sale—Vera, though no prude, has firm objections to prostitution as a reflection of unequal power. Security? Maybe that too, but again, the price the woman pays matters, and Vera’s uncompromising, sometimes to her cost, as she realizes only in retrospect.

The novel seems so sure-footed, it’s hard to signal missteps, and none strike me as serious. The narrative glides over a couple difficulties, giving you the impression that they simply faded away. But these rare instances of unearned progression in no way mar a brilliant, evocative portrayal of a young woman looking for a place to stand she can call her own. I highly recommend Vera.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.