Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

I've read all three of Fiona Davis' novels, and every time I've followed the same pattern: start eagerly reading, get restless by page 50; put the book down, start something else, then return and devour the rest of the book. 

I'm not sure why I do this, but I do know one thing for certain: I absolutely love her novels. Her unique driver: taking a historical, quintessentially New York landmark, and crafting a novel around it. This time around, The Masterpiece centers on the Grand Central Terminal in the late 1920's and 1974, when the Grand Central Terminal was in very real danger of being destroyed to make room for a new, modern building. It was considered a crumbling old mess, full of homeless people, drug deals, and criminal activity. No one cared about it. Except one group of people, including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who insisted that it be saved, deemed a historical landmark, and brought back to its original, stunning beauty. 

We follow two women: Clara Darden and Virginia Clay. Clara is an illustrator trying to break into the New York world of art and fashion, working at the famed Grand Central School of Art. She's a young woman in 1928 New York, determined to succeed, but struggling against the prevailing attitude that illustrators aren't really artists--and even more disdain because she's a woman. She's very talented, and with some help, slowly starts to make her way towards recognition. But she disappears from the New York art scene in 1931, and now, in 1974, no one knows who she was, or really cares. 

Virginia Clay is newly divorced; a breast cancer survivor and a single mother. She ends up working at the information station at the Grand Central Terminal in 1974 with a rag-tag group of people who have seen it all happen from the windows of their information booth. Virginia's struggling to create a new life vastly different from her previous life as a lawyer's pampered wife with no money worries. Her daughter Ruby has dropped out of her first year of college, and wants to be a photographer. 

Virginia gets lost on her first disastrous day at her new job, and instead of finding a restroom, she unlocks a door that completely changes her life. Inside that door is the long shuttered Grand Central School of Art. It looks like time stood still, and Virginia wanders around, stunned at the rooms full of art, left behind when the school closed during the Depression. 

The novel moves back and forth between Clara and Virginia; we see the Grand Central Terminal is all its amazing beauty, and we see it decades later, faded, filthy, and in danger of destruction. But underneath those layers of dirt the elegance and craftsmanship is just waiting to come back to life. Will Virginia have a hand in the salvation of the terminal, and maybe perhaps solve the mystery of Clara Darden?

I liked both women; maybe Virginia even more so than Clara. Virginia doesn't give up, keeps going and persevering. She sees her mistakes and works to correct them. Clara is one tough lady, who has more talent than those around her, but isn't appreciated as she should be. She works hard to become independent and successful, until it all falls apart tragically. 

I so enjoyed this novel. Now I want to find more information about the Grand Central Terminal. I'm hoping there's a documentary somewhere; I've got some research to do!  

The plot of The Masterpiece moved along fairly quickly; all of the characters were well developed; the art scene of the 1930's was fascinating and undergoing tremendous change. And who would have thought an art school would be in the Grand Central Terminal?! 

Rating:  5/6 for a solid, well-crafted novel about the rebirth of Grand Central Terminal. It's also about the rebirth of two women who, fifty years apart, are drawn together by the history, art, and people who made the Grand Central Terminal a vibrant, unforgettable New York landmark. And the cover art is stunning!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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