Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Race to Splendor, by Ciji Ware

I think it’s pretty clear from this blog that I’m quiet eclectic when it comes to my reading choices.  Historical fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction, classics – I’ll read anything that catches my fancy.  But I found myself a little stumped with my last read, which was a bit of a mixed bag – I really enjoyed it, but there were several aspects that annoyed me to no end… But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with the name of the book – A Race to Splendor, which is Ciji Ware’s tale of post-1906 San Francisco.  If you’re not familiar with American history, the date seems non-consequential; however, 1906 was the year of a massive earthquake that destroyed much of the city by the Bay.  

A Race to Splendor tells the story of Amelia Bradshaw, the second woman to have graduated from UC-Berkley and formal architectural school in France.  Once she completed her studies in Paris, she returns to San Francisco to find that her father has gambled away her inheritance in the form of a luxury hotel that had been in the family for years.  The man who now holds the deed, J.D. Thayer, is something of a wild-child in San Francisco’s aristocracy, and is extremely well connected to the city’s power structure.  The situation changes, however, on the morning of April 18th, 1906 when an 8.25 magnitude earthquake hits the city, and the hotel that Amelia and J.D. have contested ownership of is destroyed.  Following the earthquake and resulting firestorm, and by twist of fate, Amelia ends up the principal architect and construction overseer on the hotel’s rebuilding.  Working in a city rife with corruption, and in close proximity with J.D., the story then becomes about a developing relationship and the dangers of working in construction in a corrupt system.

The story is interesting, the characters engaging, and Ware’s writing style is solid.  What I didn’t like was the way this book was sold to readers via the back-cover.  I was led to believe that it would be a story of rivalry between female architects working to rebuild the city – while a secondary character, Julia Morgan, was a real historical figure that has been credited with the actual rebuilding effort, she’s portrayed in this book as a friend of Amelia and her one-time employer; there’s no real rivalry between the two of them and what tensions do exist are dismissed with quickly in favour of the developments surrounding the hotel’s rebuilding.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, the style of this book through me off at a few turns.  It’s like a hybrid between a standard historical-fiction and a romance novel.  Ware relied on some tried and true tropes that can be observed in good old-fashioned bodice-rippers, but she also fell back on patters that make up the back-bone of historical fictions.  As someone who reads both kinds of books often, it was enough to throw me off balance more than once – I was never quite sure what the mind set I should be in to read it.  And while Ware’s writing style is good, she’s got a few bad habits – such as minor instances of ham-fisted plot development and awkward dialogue.  

What I really liked about this book was Ware’s ability to capture a unique time in Western history.  This story, set at the turn of the 20th century, highlight a whole host of social issues that the people of the era were dealing with.  As the Victorian age was in its decline, and women were experiencing expanded legal rights, A Race to Splendor is a character study of a society that is having to adjust to the realities of women like Amelia.  Beyond the feminist bent to this book, it also tackles the sticky subject of racism – it does a yeoman-like job as illustrating the role of marginalized cultures (specifically the Chinese population) in San Francisco before the earthquake and after.  Finally, in its very setting of the construction world, it demonstrates the types of corruption that could occur in politics before the 24-hour news cycle and increased public accountability (no, I’m not naïve enough to this that corruption has been eradicated, merely that it’s harder to hide these days).  In all these things, this book reminded me a lot of Dark Hearts of Chicago, another book that I really enjoyed.

Regardless of the flaws, I felt that the successful characters and historical perspective had me enjoying this read.  So much so, that Ware is going to go on my list of author’s to look for when I brows through my local Chapters.  So, final verdict?  This is a good book – if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and a chick, because of that romance angle), I think you’ll enjoy this one.  Go into it with the understanding that the plot as described on the book isn’t what you’ll be getting, but know that the story is solid.  

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