Sharon's Book & Wine Club - June 2021

THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS BY SUSAN MEISSNER

Susan Meissner spins an exceptional story about an Irish immigrant who lands in San Francisco shortly before the 1906 earthquake.

After spending two years in New York City, Sophie Whalen, 20, answers a newspaper ad from widower Martin Hocking of San Francisco, who is seeking a wife for him and a mother for his daughter. Sophie falls head over heels for Martin’s five-year-old daughter, Kat, having given up having a child of her own, and looks forward to developing a bond with her new husband.

But Sophie learns that all is not as it seems when a pregnant woman named Belinda Bigelow shows up on her doorstep hours before the earthquake, looking for her husband, James, who told Belinda he had business with Martin.

pon seeing a picture of Martin, Belinda recognizes him as James. This leads the two women to go through Martin’s papers, and they deduce he’d married both of them under different names.

Unexpected and masterfully crafted twists and turns abound after the earthquake, as a federal marshall questions Sophie about Martin’s disappearance. The plucky and principled Sophie (who is hiding a few secrets of her own) captivates from the first page, while naive Belinda and sensitive Kat are standouts. Ingeniously plotted and perfectly structured, this captivates from beginning to end.

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-451-49218-0

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Reviews

The Nature of Fragile Things is the mesmerizing, enchanting new novel from author Susan Meissner. A tale celebrating strong women, female friendships and the special bond between mothers and daughters, this charming book is the perfect companion to a hot cup of tea on a winter afternoon.

Sophie Whalen isn’t looking for love.  But she is searching for a way out of her dead end life in a New York tenement, so when she sees an ad for a mail-order bride from a man looking for a mother for his daughter Kat, she responds. He replies and before she knows it, she’s on her way to San Francisco. Widower Martin Hocking is entrancingly handsome, with striking eyes and a calm, temperate, well-mannered demeanor which serves as a balm to all Sophie’s fears about wedding a stranger. They are married within hours of meeting and she immediately moves into his fine house in a lovely neighborhood. He leaves the next day on a business trip, a situation which could have been difficult for Sophie and Kat, who are complete strangers, but Sophie proves to be adept at motherhood and she and Kat quickly develop a strong relationship. The little girl, traumatized by her mother’s death, hasn’t been speaking, but she slowly begins to flower (and talk) under Sophie’s care. Things are a bit lonely – Martin spends most of his time on the road for his sales job and even when he is home he is cold and distant to them both – but Sophie slowly builds a life for herself and Kat in the city.

As the months pass, she grows curious about her husband’s oddities. He keeps his desk locked, has a mysterious safe in the basement she isn’t allowed to touch, and when Sophie meets his former landlady the woman tells some strange tales about him. It’s hard for Sophie to ask questions, though. She and Kat are happy together, and her new-found financial security makes it easy for her not to dig too deeply into the life of the man who provides it. Until a stranger shows up on the doorstep forcing her to realize everything she thought she knew was a lie.

Belinda Bigelow is a pregnant young woman whose husband allegedly left town to handle some business for Martin. He was supposed to be gone for only a brief time but it is days since Belinda has seen him and she’s concerned something has happened to him. Slowly, Belinda and Sophie begin to piece together a puzzle which has them both frightened and horrified, and which leads them to a dying woman in the American Southwest, someone who knows the final, shattering piece of the mystery which will change all of their lives forever.

I sat down to peruse a few pages of this tale and read straight through till I finished; I was completely riveted by the riddle the women were unraveling and how their lives were affected by it. Sophie is a fabulous heroine – warm hearted, clever, kind and resourceful. She is exactly whom you would want with you when your world was falling apart. The plucky, resilient Kat was amazing as well. Her father’s neglect has forced her to fend for herself and as a result, she’s wise and capable beyond her years. Belinda is young and naïve but so kindhearted and generous you can’t help loving her. I adored the way all three of our heroines learned that resilience and perseverance can lead you to a brighter, better tomorrow.

The story takes place in San Francisco, in the period surrounding the great earthquake. The author does a fantastic job with the history; she doesn’t do information dumps but instead allows everyday life and the massive events from that period to inform how her characters navigate their world.

Ms. Meissner also does a great job with the mystery. Parts of it I had suspected from the beginning, but other portions were a surprise. The focus of the story remains on our heroines and how what is happening impacts them, which was perfect. It also highlights how smart and capable Sophie is. She is far more than the has villain bargained for and it is a complete delight to watch her outwit them.

At the end of the novel, we learn something rather surprising about one of the heroines. It revolves around spousal abuse, although we are told about it rather than having it occur on page. Naturally, this sequence includes violence but it isn’t at all graphic. This segment isn’t gratuitous but is meant to establish the how and why behind some of the characters’ behaviors.  The Nature of Fragile Things  is a tale about surviving adversity and making the most of the opportunities life gives you, and it looks at the darker and lighter aspects of life equally.

If the story has a flaw – and I’m not sure I would really call it that – it is that after we’ve reached a resolution of the primary issues, we abruptly leave the characters even though there is still plenty of tale left to tell. We are given an epilogue which updates us on how each of them fare in the future, but I could have read at least another hundred pages and considered it time well spent.

That’s a quibble though and in no way impacts the perfection that is The Nature of Fragile Things. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction novels featuring strong, quick witted heroines.

It is the spring of 1905, and Sophie Whalen stands at the ferry railing in San Francisco Bay after a long train ride from New York. A photo of a man is clipped to her handbag, and she is looking for him in the crowd. So desperate to leave her past behind, Sophie had answered a mail-order bride ad from someone seeking a wife to be a mother to his young daughter.

Martin Hocking, the man in question, comes forward to greet her alone. He leads her to a carriage for the brief trip to the courthouse, explaining that five-year-old Kat is very shy and chose not to come along. The proper words are exchanged, and she is now Sophie Whalen Hocking. They stop along the way to pick up Kat from her caregiver. The girl stares wordlessly at Sophie and remains silent on the way to their plush estate in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.

“When the devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906, strikes, THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS turns into a nail-biting thriller with all the earmarks of a whopper of a Netflix series.”

Sophie had fled Ireland in the early 1900s for a new start. She found a menial job and lived in squalor in a New York City tenement, but it was an improvement over what she left behind. Now the wife of a well-to-do businessman (as Martin describes himself), she finds herself in a lovely house with everything she could wish for, including a generous allowance for food and clothing. Due to his travels, Martin seems to have no friends in San Francisco and is away for extended periods of time, so he wants someone to raise Kat.

Sophie, who some might describe as a beautiful young woman, is merely a well-taken-care-of housekeeper and babysitter. She is told never to open the desk drawers in Martin’s office to look for his business records or interfere in his private affairs. Her only acquaintance is a chatty neighbor who knows little about Martin except that she believes Kat’s mother might be dead and mentions the name Belinda.

Then a pregnant woman who introduces herself as Belinda shows up at Sophie’s door during a downpour. She sees the photograph taken at Sophie and Martin’s wedding ceremony, and Kat, who seldom speaks in full sentences, recognizes the visitor and calls her Mommy. Determined to figure out what is going on, the two ladies decide to go through Martin’s papers in his library. They discover yet another wife, Candace, the heiress to a large fortune.

Okay, this may sound a bit like a soap opera, but it transcends the genre through Susan Meissner’s beautifully woven tapestry of historical events. When the devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906, strikes, THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS turns into a nail-biting thriller with all the earmarks of a whopper of a Netflix series. We eventually learn why Sophie was so hasty to leave the Emerald Isle, and the ending does not disappoint.   

Book Club Questions

THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY

  1. Who do you believe is the true protagonist of the story?
  2. How would you describe the relationship between Kat and Sophie before the earthquake? How about afterward
  3. Though Sophie and Candace both love Kat, they have very different relationships with her. How has this book changed your understanding of motherhood?

THE STORY PLOT

  1. How does Libby’s shallow acquaintance with Sophie further outline the importance of genuine female friendships, especially considering the women’s circumstances at this point in history?
  2. How was the pacing/structure (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)?
  3. What are the major turning points in this story?

THE ENDING

  1. Did it work for you?
  2. Do you think that in the end, Sophie, Belinda, and Kat had happy lives? Why? How do you think each one was changed by what they collectively experienced?
    Man’s past?

SYMBOLISM AND FORESHADOWING

  1. Let’s talk about symbolism. What symbolism was used in the book
  2. In chapter 25, as Sophie surveys the rubble that was once their San Francisco home, she notes that “It is the nature of the earth to shift. It is the nature of fragile things to break. It is the nature of fire to burn.” What is she referring to when she says “fragile things”?

THE WRITING

  1. Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
  2. What would you change if you could rewrite The Nature of Fragile Things

DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC

  1. What did you love most about the book?