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February 6, 2021

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

It's 1905 and an Irish immigrant is hungry and cold. She lives in filth and works tirelessly, with little to show for her efforts. A personal ad catches her eye: a widower in California needs a wife and mother for his 6-year-old daughter. Is this Sophie's chance to get a warm bed, plenty of food, and a sense of home that she desperately missees?

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

The Nature of Fragile Things
February 2021; Berkley; 978-0451492180
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); women's fiction
I don't read too many books set at the turn of the century, though I have recently started reading some and have enjoyed them. I was drawn to The Nature of Fragile Things for two reasons: 

One, it is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was "the big one". I visited San Francisco several years ago and went to a streetcar museum and it had a section about the earthquake and I realized how little I knew about California history outside of the gold rush. 

Two, it features a strong female protagonist. The other books that I have read and enjoyed that are set in a similar time period have all had strong female protagonists. 

I immediately liked Sophie and was drawn to her plight. In earlier times, it wasn't usual for women to marry men that they barely knew, particularly if they wanted to go west. Not only did it take considerable financial resources, but unmarried females were rarely allowed on wagon trains. I know enough about the conditions many immigrants found themselves in New York, particularly the Irish, to not begrudge her the opportunity for a better life. Sophie is from the North so she is Protestant, but I assume she felt the same discrimination as the Catholic Irish. This is subtly noted when Sophie corrects others who assume she is Catholic.

The reader will realize early on that something isn't quite right in the Hocking household. It isn't just that the little girl Kat doesn't talk. Or that Martin is emotionally distant from Sophie. All that is easily explained - they are grieving the death of Kat's mother. It is other little things like Sophie doesn't know who Martin works for and then when he builds a "safe" in the boiler room to cure the hair tonic that he is helping his cousin sell. Sophie thought Martin had no family.

I will admit that I suspected something much more sinister from the bottles full of liquid that had to be protected from light and vibrations. I thought it was something like nitroglycerin, except that it needs to be kept from heat so the boiler room wouldn't have been ideal.

But what is revealed about Martin is much more tangled and heartbreaking. 

I loved how the story was told. You have Sophie being interviewed by a U.S. Marshall months after the 1906 earthquake about what happened to her husband. Then we "flashback" with her as she tells her story to the deputy. These "flashbacks" don't feel like memories. I felt like I was walking right there beside Sophie as she lived it in realtime. I thought the story was really masterfully done as we are given snippets and then layer after layer is exposed as she is questioned about the truthfulness of her statement.

In some ways, The Nature of Fragile Things reminded me of Rebecca Rosenberg's Gold Digger: The Remarkable Baby Doe Tabor (read my review).  

I really didn't want to put this book down. I had to take a break to read my book club book; otherwise, I think I would have read it in just a day or two. As it was, I read nearly half of it in one night. The Nature of Fragile Things is the perfect book for these long cold nights.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. I've just started hearing about this book and it sounds intriguing.

  2. The summary makes me want to know how things work out!