Set in the early twentieth century, Amelia returns to San Francisco from Paris where she has just qualified as an architect, only to discover her father has gambled away the hotel established by her recently deceased grandfather. Amelia takes the new owner to court but since single women aren’t allowed to own property in their own right in California, she loses the case and the hotel stays under the ownership of J.D. Thayer who has already started building an extension for his new gambling club.
Despite this setback, Amelia is determined to get on with her life and manages to get a job with her mentor, Julia Morgan, who inspired Amelia to become an architect in the first place. However, Julia is struggling to find work and Amelia is stuck on smaller projects while doing the night shift. Amelia’s desire to work on a bigger project becomes a reality when a major earthquake rips through the heart of San Francisco, and fires devastate the city’s most prominent areas. Julia’s firm is given the lucrative contract of rebuilding the Bay View, the hotel that should’ve been Amelia’s legacy, and also the Fairmont, a luxurious hotel which hadn’t even opened its doors.
While Amelia is given the job of overseeing the rebuilding of the Bay View, tensions begin to mount between her and J.D. Thayer who wants more than a professional relationship. The Thayers are one of San Francisco’s most prominent founding families, but J.D. is estranged from his domineering father and is determined to prove he can make it on his own even if it means resorting to unscrupulous methods. The construction work in the city is beset with corruption problems and J.D. has enemies who don’t want him to succeed. As Amelia spends more time with J.D, she realises their attraction cannot be denied but she doesn’t trust J.D. and isn’t sure if she can get past his lurid lifestyle.
I found A Race To Splendor to be something of a mixed bag, while I loved the historical backdrop centring on the earthquake and the aftermath, the romance elements were more problematic and very stereotyped. While I appreciated Amelia was a strong woman who knew her own mind, I felt her values were a little too modern, particularly in regard to her sexual encounters. Amelia has just ended a longterm affair with a man who wanted her to give up any thoughts of having a career so they could marry. Considering Amelia was living openly with this man in Paris, I found her attitude towards J.D. a little hypocritical, particularly since a lot of her disapproval about his life is based on assumptions she has made incorrectly. The plot relies a little too heavily on misunderstandings which could be easily resolved if the characters ever bothered to talk to each other properly. While it makes for great drama, it is overdone to the extent it becomes more annoying than anything else.
Regardless, Amelia and J.D. make a great team and I liked them as a couple even though they aren’t the most passionate I’ve ever encountered. The relationship evolves slowly, particularly since there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, but I wasn’t keen on the drunken encounter that led them to the bedroom for the first time. It just felt a little cheap under the circumstances and would’ve preferred something with a little more meaning. While Amelia does come across as being a little rigid in her views, she is actually quite liberal and has no problem working with the Chinese crews who have been blacklisted by everyone else. The racism towards the Chinese community is very interesting and well portrayed, although I’ve already become quite familiar with this era through Lisa See’s novels. J.D. is also a loveable rogue with a heart of gold underneath a tough exterior and he reminded me a lot of the Blackie character portrayed by Clark Gable in the 1936 movie San Francisco.
The diverse social aspects are probably the best part of this story, however there are far too many to concentrate on fully, making some of them seem quite token. As well as the widespread corruption going on within the construction industry and government departments, you have the appalling racism aimed at the Chinese, as well as the sex trafficking of young Chinese women. And that’s before you even consider the attitude society has towards women in general in regard to property ownership, marriage and careers. That’s a lot of balls to keep juggling, so it is inevitable some of them will fall to the wayside.