Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead
It is 1905 San Jose, California, and Abigail Fischer's sister, Cecelia, is dying of leukaemia when their doctor cousin offers the opportunity to try an experimental treatment—X-rays. The family moves to San Francisco to support Cecelia during her treatment, which cousin Gerard leaves largely to his partner, Dr Robert King. Robert is attracted to Abigail, but faces the ethical issue of dating the relative of a patient, a patient who is also the beloved relation of his friend and partner.
I very much enjoyed Karen Barnett's debut novel, Mistaken, and the first portion of Out of the Ruins is as good, if not better. It has the same excellent attention to historical detail, robust plot, authentic characters and addresses one of the core 'problems' of the Christian faith: why does God allow His people to suffer? This is Abby’s central conflict:
“If You take her away, I’ll never speak to You again.”
The historical context, such as the doctors testing the X-rays on themselves, was fascinating—particularly given what we now know about the dangers of excessive doses of radiation. The research around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was also excellent, as were the descriptions of the efforts to contain the resulting fires.
However, I thought Out of the Ruins wasn’t as good as Mistaken, because the story is less cohesive. At first, it's the story of Cecelia's illness and treatment, then it turns into a story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Both stories have merit, but they don't necessarily hold together properly, partly because there is a gap of several months between the two sections.
It felt as though a lot of the action around the earthquake was simply to display the situation, as there was little character development from Abigail during this section, and even less from Robert. I think Into the Whirlwind (Elizabeth Camden's story set amidst the 1871 Chicago fire) did a much better job of integrating the character development into the disaster plot.
The story takes another segue in the aftermath of the earthquake, when Abby is given the diary of a great aunt and begins to read it. Abby and Mae share some similar experiences, and it's obvious the diary is going to be instrumental in bringing Abby back to God after her earlier declaration that she's never going to talk to Him again. It's a little convenient, bordering on contrived. We believe God heals, yet also have to acknowledge that not everyone who prays for healing experiences release from their symptoms. Why not? It's a hard question, one that Out of the Ruins skirts around but, in my view, fails to adequately address.
This is the first of a new series, The Golden Gate Chronicles. Will I read the next book? Yes, because I can see the original plot and solid writing that made Mistaken such an outstanding debut. And the earthquake has happened now, so hopefully future books in the series will focus on building strong characters in the unpredictable aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The writing was excellent, the characters showed potential and the plot had the potential to be fascinating, but overall, Out of the Ruins just didn’t deliver for me.
Thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Karen Barnett at her website.