Literary Epicenter

California author’s newest novel tells of crumbling worlds

The year is 1906 and the ground is preparing to swallow Sophie Whalen whole. Dishes are shattering, door frames are splitting, floorboards are snapping, and the “earth is rocking like a ship on a furious sea.” This is San Francisco’s great earthquake — a catastrophe that exposes the gut and grit of femininity in Susan Meissner’s latest novel, The Nature of Fragile Things (Berkley Publishing Group).

Released in February, the book follows Whalen, an Irish immigrant in her twenties, as she moves across the country from a tenement in New York City—a “place where dreams for a better life could unravel faster than your threadbare clothes.” Supposed widower Martin Hocking of San Francisco has placed a terse newspaper ad for a mail-order bride who “doesn’t need coddling,” and Whalen, desperate, agrees to wed.

Not long after exchanging vows, though, a pregnant woman named Belinda Bigelow arrives on Whalen’s new stoop in San Francisco while Hocking is away on business, and breathlessly reveals that this man is not who he says he is. The drama reaches a crescendo just as the world begins to literally crumble beneath the characters’ feet. 

Running from natural disaster and a hustler-turned-husband, Whalen, Bigelow, and a third woman (whose identity must remain unsaid for fear of spoiling the ending) must dig deep to survive. In turn, the author explores the titular nature of fragile things. 

“Women were seen as very fragile creatures at the turn of the [20th] century. They didn’t have a lot of agency,” says Meissner. “But not everything that looks fragile actually is.” 

Similarly, not everything that looks indestructible is all that steadfast. “San Francisco was this big, vibrant, bustling city that looked strong when it wasn’t,” notes Meissner, who lives in San Diego. 

Though the author grew up in California, she spent much of her young adulthood in England and Germany, where her husband, an enlisted airman, was stationed. When Meissner moved back to America in her thirties, she submitted the letters she wrote to friends and family from Europe as samples for her first writing job—a part-time reporter position with a newspaper in rural Minnesota. “I learned really fast how to be a reporter,” says Meissner.

She didn’t attempt her first novel until she was 42, when her beloved grandfather passed away. “He was 84 and had accomplished everything he had wanted in his life. I realized I was half his age—my life was half over—and I hadn’t even tried to write a novel,” says Meissner. 

Grieving but empowered, Meissner waded into her first effort, A Seahorse in the Thames. She’s now 15 books deep and under contract with Berkley, a publisher affiliated with Penguin Random House. Meissner’s books are well read and well liked, to say the least. The Nature of Fragile Things has been called “ingeniously plotted” and “perfectly structured,” possibly “her best yet.” 

She credits the book’s timely success to the symbolic presence of the earthquake—a disaster that, in the wake of COVID-19, feels newly raw and relatable.

“Everyone has experienced that feeling when your world is crumbling.”

Susan Meissner (susanlmeissner.com) will speak at the 1921 Lake Lure Inn and Spa (2771 Memorial Hwy.) on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 11am, as part of the Friends of the Mountains Branch Library’s “Books and Bites” series. The $25 admission includes a three-course lunch. To register, call 828-287-6392.

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