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Vera

A Novel

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New York Times bestselling author Carol Edgarian delivers “an all-encompassing and enthralling” (Oprah Daily) novel featuring an unforgettable heroine coming of age in the aftermath of catastrophe, and her quest for love and reinvention.

Meet Vera Johnson, fifteen-year-old illegitimate daughter of Rose, notorious proprietor of San Francisco’s most legendary bordello. Vera has grown up straddling two worlds—the madam’s alluring sphere, replete with tickets to the opera, surly henchmen, and scant morality, and the quiet domestic life of the family paid to raise her.

On the morning of the great quake, Vera’s worlds collide. As the city burns and looters vie with the injured, orphaned, and starving, Vera and her guileless sister, Pie, are cast adrift. Disregarding societal norms and prejudices, Vera begins to imagine a new kind of life. She collaborates with Tan, her former rival, and forges an unlikely family of survivors, navigating through the disaster together.

“A character-driven novel about family, power, and loyalty, (San Francisco Chronicle), Vera brings to life legendary characters—tenor Enrico Caruso, indicted mayor Eugene Schmitz and boss Abe Ruef, tabloid celebrity Alma Spreckels. This “brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized” (Booklist, starred review) tale of improbable outcomes and alliances takes hold from the first page, with remarkable scenes of devastation, renewal, and joy. Vera celebrates the audacious fortitude of its young heroine, who discovers an unexpected strength in unprecedented times.

This reading group guide for Carol Edgarian’s VERA includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the novel.

Introduction

With a personality akin to a force of nature, young Vera Johnson must navigate a complex world at home and in the corrupt city around her—San Francisco in 1906. Vera straddles two worlds: the glamorous life of her mother, the madam of the city’s most famed bordello, and a difficult but respectable existence with her adopted mother and sister.

The disaster of the great quake gives Vera the opportunity to forge her own identity as things shatter around her. As she struggles to survive and create a new life, she intrepidly casts aside societal norms, gains surprising allies among a legendary cast of characters that includes tenor Enrico Caruso, indicted mayor Eugene Schmitz, and tabloid celebrity Alma Spreckels. From the rubble, Vera and her cohort of fellow survivors carve a new path forward.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Edgarian opens Vera with two quotes about where to look for information or truth. We soon learn that Vera is named for that very thing: truth. Discuss how truth figures in the novel. Does Vera ultimately find it?

2. In the chapter “Birthday,” Vera describes San Francisco, saying, “My city was young, bold, having burned to the ground five times and five times come back richer and more brazen. To know her was to hold in your heart the up-downness of things. Her curves and hollows, her extremes. . . . Her beauty, her trembling. Her greed.” How else would you describe San Francisco—then and now? What is significant about the parallels between the city of San Francisco and the characters in the novel? How does the character of the city change and how does it stay the same?

3. From the outset, Vera and her sister, Pie, are introduced as distinct contrasts in appearance and personality. Pie is considered graceful and modest while Vera is viewed as brusque and headstrong. In what ways do these traits help and hinder each girl through the chaos? Do the girls transform or largely stay the same?

4. Several characters in the novel are real historical figures: Alma de Bretteville, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, Enrico Caruso. Were you familiar with any of them? What effect do the stories of these real figures serve in the novel as a whole and as supporting characters in the fictional world of Vera, Rose, and Tan?

5. Toward the novel’s beginning, Vera states, “I had made it my secret mission to find one adult—one single adult—who could show me how to behave.” Does Vera ever find that adult? In what ways does she have to grow to become that person?

6. What do you think of Morie as a mother figure? Did her fate in the quake alter your feelings toward her in any way?

7. Throughout the book, we encounter themes of hunger, desire, ambition, and possession. In “The Gold House,” Vera and Pie share an exchange: “V, every day you claim you’re starving,” Pie says. “And every day it’s true,” replies Vera. Discuss what these characters desire. In what way are they denied or fulfilled? Discuss how these experiences transform the girls’ perspectives and change them as individuals.

8. Talk about the Haj and what his presence adds to the story. What function does he have in terms of Vera’s growth?

9. What do you make of Vera’s rapport with Mayor Schmitz? The two share several one-on-one conversations and she learns more about him from eavesdropping on his conversations with Rose. How does her perception of him change throughout the novel?

10. For her first fifteen years, Vera lives within a corrupted world of thieves, gamblers, grifters, and political scammers. When the quake levels the city, there is opportunity for a new beginning. How does Vera seize that opportunity to create her own version of morality, different from the one she’d been given? Does the rest of her world follow suit? How does character determine whom she ultimately choses as her family?

11. Vera describes the difference between want and desire: “Want is a ripe peach or a new dress; desire is the pang that keeps you awake at night, as if you’re being chased.” Do you agree? How would you define the difference between these terms? How do some of the other characters—Rose, Tan, Lifang, Alma, Capability, Valentine, Bobby—go about attempting to satisfy their wants and desires? What is the consequence of being left yearning?

12. At first, Tan and Vera are at odds and often take petty jabs at each other, but after the quake, the two become effective business partners and perhaps even friends. Consider how they journey from foes to allies to what we might call “chosen family.” Do you think their relationship would have evolved if there had been no disaster? Why or why not?

13. If we think of Pie as Vera’s opposite, we might consider Lifang her worthy rival. In what ways are the two girls strikingly similar and how does fate treat them differently? Who, ultimately, gets the life she desires? Both girls compete for Rose’s attention, but it seems to Vera that Rose treats Lifang with more open affection. Why might this be the case?

14. In the chapter “Loose Papers,” Vera tells Bobby, “I’m never getting married. . . . But you are.” Why do you think Vera feels this way at this point in the novel? Discuss the relationship between Vera and Bobby.

15. Vera is host to a dazzlingly eclectic cast of characters. Out of the secondary characters, who would you consider your favorite, and why?

16. The final chapter of the book shows Vera reflecting on her past. What does she consider most important in the end? What does this say about her as a person?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. To learn more about the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, visit the rich trove of archives and witness accounts at http://www.sfmuseum.org/.

2. Host a version of Rose’s tea party! Try baking a lemon cake and break out the fancy teacups. You are encouraged to make it boozy.

3. Read Carol Edgarian’s prior novel, Three Stages of Amazement, a contemporary love story set in San Francisco during the 2008 financial collapse.
Photo credit: Lucy Jenks

Carol Edgarian is the author of the New York Times bestseller Three Stages of Amazement and the international bestseller Rise the Euphrates, winner of the ANC Freedom Prize. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and W, among many others. She is cofounder and editor of Narrative, a digital publisher of fiction, poetry, and art, and Narrative in the Schools, which provides free libraries and writing resources to teachers and students around the world. Edgarian lives with her family in San Francisco.

"Edgarian's gritty yet hopeful historical novel doesn't gloss over the countless tragedies rising like the smoke and dust in the 500 devastated city blocks, but Vera personifies the pluck that revived San Francisco... riveting." Shelf Awareness 

 “Written with distinctive and elegant prose, Edgarian paints a beautiful portrait of devastation… at times reminiscent of Doctorow’s Ragtime... a character-driven novel about family, power and loyalty, Vera ultimately asks if it’s possible to belong to another person.” 
San Francisco Chronicle

“An all-encompassing and enthralling historical novel, Vera parallels with the current era, and all of its accompanying losses.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine

"Vera is a triumph—a story of disaster and healing, power and humility, grit and grace set against the lush, lascivious backdrop of San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake. This book is as whip smart as its heroine and as electric as her city and will haunt me—in the best way—for a long time to come." 
Anna Solomon, author of The Book of V

“Reading about the sudden destruction of a world right in the middle of our own 21st century crisis helped me understand that the question we’re asking now is one we’ve asked before: where do we go from here?  Vera brings to vivid life a historical moment that defined a city, an era. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into the American DNA."  
Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes

“Immersive. . . . Vera is a reverent ode to the resiliency of San Francisco and her people.” San Francisco Examiner

“Brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized.”
Booklist, STARRED review

"A novel of resilience in the face of disaster, just what we need right now.  Carol Edgarian's tale couldn't have come at a better time." 
T.C. Boyle 

"Edgarian weaves a wonderful tale of struggle, youth, perseverance, love and the lack of it, and much of what makes us human beings... captures a difficult but evocative time in the life of one of America’s great cities. It is well worth a read for this alone, if not for the gripping story of a young girl’s struggle and coming to age during the life-shattering events of the earthquake and fires of 1906.” New York Journal of Books

“In Vera, the past is as alive as you are, the brilliantly illuminated characters loving and surviving, breaking and building, destroying and redeeming, in rich detail and true color. Vera’s 1906 is a world we see and live in.”
Amy Bloom

"Edgarian's work contends elegantly and meticulously with historical detail, placing us at the center of a fateful event and allowing us to imagine how we’d respond… The star of Vera—sparkling with luxuriance and offering hope in the midst of devastation—is San Francisco, the great civic entity that reinvents itself time and again.” Alta

“The City by the Bay, leveled by the 1906 earthquake and fire, is vividly evoked in Edgarian’s engrossing saga… an ingenious Vera navigates a world sharply divided by affluence and poverty that exposes discrimination and injustice, requiring a special resilience to survive.” —The National Book Review

"Engaging…memorable…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."
BookPage 

"A lovely, constantly surprising novel… this tart-tongued female Huck Finn leads a ragtag gang...  serious research underlies Edgarian’s novel... a brand-new California classic."
Historical Novels Review

“The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 extinguishes all sense of normalcy for 15-year-old Vera Johnson, who must survive by sheer pluck and intelligence in the newly rattled landscape... . The novel shines in painting a vivid picture of early-20th-century San Francisco, including its rowdy politics."
Kirkus Reviews

"Sisters, mothers, heroines, charlatans, buffoons, scam artists, prostitutes, and the uncontrollable, passionate brawn of a young nation: in Vera we see, taste, smell the marrow of a country intoxicated on hope—all evidence to the contrary. Amazingly, Edgarian has captured a rolling, earnest, perpetual ruin so complex it could just be called life. She’s conjured another wonderful novel out of dust, history, love.”  
Rick Bass 

"Though it has a panoramic sweep, Carol Edgarian’s Vera is a novel of great immediacy and heart. From the early scene at the opera, to its shocking real-world correlative, this novel exists in the zone – let’s call it the world. In so many ways, it sings.”   
Ann Beattie

"The author paints a vivid portrait of a metropolis teeming with sex workers, immigrants, corrupt politicians, and artists... The result makes for a stirring testament to a resilient city that never knew the meaning of the word quit."
Publishers Weekly

“Vera has always had to be scrappy and resourceful, even as a child. But the great earthquake of 1906 shakes even Vera, who is forced to imagine a new world for herself among an unlikely band of survivors.”
—BuzzFeed

"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."
—LA Review of Books

“Set in San Francisco during the great quake and fire of 1906, this wonderfully compelling novel takes us deeply into the heart and mind of an unforgettable fifteen year old girl, one who must find her way alone through a mother’s neglect, through bordellos and corrupt politicians, through the debris and ashes of what was once 'The Paris of the West.' Vera is that rare novel that you’ll want to buy for loved ones just as soon as you reach its shimmeringly beautiful ending. And its streetwise, resilient protagonist will stay with you for a very long time indeed.”
Andre Dubus III

“A beautifully imagined coming-of-age drama… Vera comes of age explosively, brilliantly and unforgettably. Inventive and poignant, VERA is full of heart-stopping descriptions of catastrophe and tragedy, but equally gorgeous and moving scenes of renewal and reinvention.”
BookReporter

“Vera shines. [Edgarian] does a masterful job of placing the reader in an authentic landscape, a time and era of a young West Coast city coming into its own. . . . a timely story for disaster-prone days, showing us that healing, hope and fortitude make up the true ground beneath us.” Charleston Post Courier

More books from this author: Carol Edgarian