Written & Published on www.criticalwrit.com
Wow, have I been waiting for that one! Shaken to the Core actually started as a small tease in Damage Control, the second book in Jae’s Hollywood series. Back then it was a script one of its main characters, Lauren, had made in her free time. Then the third book of that series, Just Physical, starred two characters that were actually filming the movie adaptation of the script. Of course, Shaken to the Core stands entirely on its own, but I did cheer like the total fangirl I am when I recognized a scene from Shaken to the Core that we’d seen the characters from Just Physical shoot.
Shaken to the Core tells the story of two women who were caught in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the subsequent fires that ravaged eighty percent of the city. One of them is Giuliana Russo, a Sicilian immigrant looking for a job after the death of her brother, her only family in the city. The other is Kate Winthrop, the only child of a rich family. When Giuliana is hired as the Winthrop’s maid, both women quickly become friends despite the rigid ruling of the class and gender norms of the time. Kate’s parents would see her a «proper» woman, married and with a child in each arm, but not only Kate doesn’t care about men, she’s also more interested in becoming a news photographer than in being a stay-at-home wife. So when unprecedented disaster strikes the city, she sees her chance to take her independence.
I don’t usually read historical fiction. I don’t like rampant misogyny and infuriating bourgeois norms, and since I tend to be interested in lesbian fiction… Well, let’s say historical fiction isn’t really the best place for me. So I was kind of gritting my teeth during the first quarter of the book. I cannot judge for historical accuracy, since I know very little about US history, but Jae's rendition of 1906 San Francisco feels vivid and rings true. Jae uses many topographic elements that ground us into the city, and it’s clear she takes accuracy at heart. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been to see your entire city go into flames before your eyes, but Kate and Giuliana’s breathtaking adventure puts us right in the middle of the inferno.
It’s hard not to love both of our main characters and together they make a fantastic pair, though Dr. Lucy Sharpe sometimes steals the show with her top-notch badassery. Both Katie and Giuliana are visibly changed by their experiences and their growth of character between the beginning and the end cannot be doubted— I can only hope that we’ll get to see more of them in the future. Theirs is a slow romance, and since neither of them has any experience with attraction, we get to see them struggle for a good while about their feelings. However, I must admit that it personally feels a little sad to see Jae go back to the more classic form of denial of one’s romantic feelings, especially after the poignant Just Physical. While it’s true that we’re less likely to see women secure in their affection for other women in 1906 San Francisco, their romance feels a little too «safe» in its way to stay on the beaten path, especially for such a well-established writer as Jae.
Another thing I regret is that Jae didn't take the time to tackle other subjects like racial inequality. 1906 San Francisco had a thriving Chinese community of about 20 000 souls and a lot of heated debates took place on the subject of rebuilding the Chinese district after the disaster. At some point, Kate muses on the fact that the fire made rich and poor people equal in pain, and I felt that was a very naive and privileged idea. While dirt and soot may have temporarily blurred class differences a bit (and even then, some of the rich people mentioned in the book bounced back immediately after the disaster), one cannot say the same about race and I would have liked to see what happened to the many people of color of San Francisco. The subject wouldn't have stood out of place either, as Giuliana's identity as a Sicilian woman would have made her a target for her contemporaries' bigotry towards poor european immigrants... A bigotry often rooted in racism.
Still, Shaken to the Core definitely holds more adrenaline than her previous books, and her efficient and tight way of writing definitely proves up to the challenge it poses. It was a pleasant read that kept me up far too late than I should have let it— a great page turner indeed.