When a novel is set in a city I know well, it can sometimes be distracting. Instead of focusing on plot and character, I'm trying to figure out where a house is located, or which bus a character is riding, or whether the author screwed up the geography (as in the chase scene in “Bullitt”). Carol Edgarian's Three Stages of Amazement is set mainly in San Francisco, and she makes the city a character in her story. The wealthy VC mogul Cal Rusch and his society A-list wife Ivy live in the Gold Coast section of Broadway, and Cal's niece Lena lives with her doctor husband Charlie Pepper in a disgustingly pink bungalow seven blocks to the north (must be the Marina). When Cal's butler Paco is sent down the hill to deliver a party invitation to the Peppers, Cal watches from his picture window as the butler struggles back up the street. Am I thinking about the repercussions of this invitation? No, I'm thinking “Take the Lyon Street steps!”.
But never mind. Charlie and Lena accept the invitation to an over-the-top engagement party for the Rusch's daughter Paige, and I get to be a fly on the wall as guests sample canapés from Jardiniere and Chez Panisse and listen to Norah Jones. But there's trouble brewing. Charlie, who has abandoned surgery to create a start-up for his invention - a surgical robot - needs money, Cal wants to invest, and Lena can't stand her uncle and doesn't want hubby to accept his filthy lucre. To further thicken the plot, an old boyfriend of Lena's, an impossibly hot Italian named Alessandro, works with Cal. He dumped Lena and she married Charlie on the rebound. Can this marriage be saved?
I'm being a shade too flip with all this. Edgarian creates far more with her story and characters than just a romantic fiction. She has an eye for the details of the lives of the super-rich, but she can also create a complex portrait of a women stretched thin by the stress of financial woes, a sick child, and an absent husband. The story takes some unexpected turns, some of which made it hard for me to return my focus to the main characters, but it was an honest picture of a marriage between two flawed but all too human people.