Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis


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 It feels like I've been missing a lot of historical fiction in the past year, when it used to make up a large portion of my monthly reading. 

Fiona Davis' The Magnolia Palace got me off to a good start in 2022. I always enjoy her novels, set in New York City and centered around famous New York City landmarks. It's a great combination of fiction and history; you can tell Fiona Davis does her research. 

This novel takes us to 1919 New York City--but also 1966 New York City. What links the two periods together? Henry Clay Frick and his family, and art. 

The 1919 story centers around Lillian Carter, who is an artist's model that is known as "Angelique". Her face and body are on numerous statues, monuments, and sculptures all around New York City. Lillian's mother has just died, and without her guidance, she's a bit lost--and broke. 

Lillian quickly finds herself in trouble with the police and, after spending the night hiding in a park, she stands in front of the Frick mansion, staring up at a carving above the front doors--it's her, of course. She's everywhere. 

Lillian is mistaken for a personal assistant candidate for Miss Helen Frick (daughter of Henry Clay Frick), and with no where to go and no money, she bluffs her way into the job. Now she's got a place to stay, and some income. Lillian plans on staying for a few months and then leaving for Hollywood and a career in film. Helen is a taskmaster, difficult to get along with, and a genius. Lillians' time at the mansion is not without issues. 

It's 1966, and the Frick mansion is now a famous art museum. English model Veronica is there on her first big photo shoot with Vogue. She's inexperienced and very new at modeling, and needs this job badly. Unfortunately, the photographer is a jerk, and Veronica ends up being left behind as the photo shoot ends and everyone leaves before a big snow storm hits. Veronica is all alone in the mansion, with no way out. So she begins to explore. 

Lillian and Veronica are both models, and their experiences at the Frick mansion--one sees it as a home, the other as an intimidating museum-are the story that brings their worlds together. I had to keep reminding myself it was 1966 in the novel, and not 2021! Trying to do the math in my head and realizing that yes, Lillian and Helen would both still be alive in 1966. I think it was just me that caused this issue in my brain; it certainly wasn't the story or the writing. 

Anyway-this is a story about women, the choices they have to make in a world where men hold all the cards--and judging people based on very little information. Lillian is a tough woman, but very vulnerable; Helen Frick is quite the character--but underneath it all, she just wants her father's love. Veronica is trying to make the best choices for her family and not losing sight of what she wants. 

Art lovers will enjoy this novel, and if you've ever visited the Frick Museum  you'll recognize so many of the rooms and artwork mentioned in this novel. There is a little bit of a mystery that also ties both stories together, and I think you'll enjoy the conclusion very much--I know I did. 

Rating: 4/6 for a historical novel about the Frick mansion; the Frick family and their art collection, and the fascinating world of modeling in the early 20th century. Strong female characters, a plot that keeps moving along, and early 20th century New York City all make this a treat to read. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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