(first published on PaperLanternWriters.com)
I confess to a love of novels about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I’ve read several, and A Splendid Ruin doesn’t disappoint. May Kimble is penniless after her mother’s death in 1904. She is left with memories of her mother’s insistence that she would not always be poor, that the father May never knew would come for her. Instead, May is sent to her mother’s wealthy sister in San Francisco. Her uncle tells May her aunt is ill and can’t see her. May’s cousin engages in some suspicious behavior. May is overwhelmed by the opulence of her new home, but continues to have nagging doubts, to wonder at family secrets, especially the identity of her father. Before she can figure it all out, her aunt is killed and May framed for it. May is institutionalized.
The 1906 quake destroys much of San Francisco, including the home where May is kept. She escapes and begins a long road to discovering who she really is. May has opportunities for help from a reporter, for an inheritance, and for revenge. Working through the assorted traumas with May made this book spellbinding.
The setting of this book, in the Gilded Age of San Francisco, takes readers from opulent balls to opium dens. It explores incredible wealth and corruption, both in business and family, exploded by the devastation of the earthquake. Afterwards, the strong survive, as they should, and the tenacious thrive. May Kimble is this sort of heroine, a protagonist worth rooting for, which is the touchstone for me in all historical fiction.
In the first part of the book, as the secrets in May’s family begin to show, I knew the earthquake was coming. For me, it was a race to see what May would learn about her cousin’s late night escapades, her uncle’s business dealings, and her aunt’s laudanum haze before the earthquake struck. And I wondered how the quake would affect it all. I was shocked when May’s uncle put her in a home for madwomen, but held out hope that the earthquake would help her. In some cases, having foreknowledge of events to come may ruin a story, but in this case it did not. The story was compelling throughout, with themes of power, social acceptance, betrayal, and perseverance.
Megan Chance is the best-selling, critically acclaimed author of several novels. Her novel Bone River was an Amazon Book of the Month, A Drop of Ink was an Editors’ Choice of the Historical Novel Society, and An Inconvenient Wife was an IndieNext pick.