Title: The Masterpiece
Author: Fiona Davis
Publisher: Dutton Books / Penguin Publishing Group
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
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(Digital ARC graciously provided by Penguin Publishing Group via their First to Read program)
New York’s Grand Central Terminal provides common ground for two women in Fiona Davis’ latest historical.
For the nearly nine million people who live in New York City, Grand Central Terminal is a crown jewel, a masterpiece of design. But for Clara Darden and Virginia Clay, it represents something quite different.
For Clara, the terminal is the stepping stone to her future, which she is certain will shine as brightly as the constellations on the main concourse ceiling. It is 1928, and twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.” Brash, fiery, confident, and single-minded–even while juggling the affections of two men, a wealthy would-be poet and a brilliant experimental painter–Clara is determined to achieve every creative success. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they’ll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression, an insatiable monster with the power to destroy the entire art scene. And even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.
Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay’s life. Full of grime and danger, from the smoke-blackened ceiling to the pickpockets and drug dealers who roam the floor, Grand Central is at the center of a fierce lawsuit: Is the once-grand building a landmark to be preserved, or a cancer to be demolished? For Virginia, it is simply her last resort. Recently divorced, she has just accepted a job in the information booth in order to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. But when Virginia stumbles upon an abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, her eyes are opened to the elegance beneath the decay. She embarks on a quest to find the artist of the unsigned masterpiece–an impassioned chase that draws Virginia not only into the battle to save Grand Central but deep into the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.
Fiona Davis has long been on my long TBR list since her first book, The Dollhouse, was released in 2016. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve never read any of her books so, when I saw that this one was up for request on Penguin’s First to Read, I grabbed my chance to change that.
And boy, it had me asking why I waited so long.
Going back and forth in time between late 1920s and mid-70s, The Masterpiece is told from the point of view of two women – Clara Darden and Virginia Clay. Together, these two very different but resilient women tell a stunning and engaging story with art and tragedy at its heart and New York’s Grand Central Terminal in the backdrop.
I absolutely loved this story. It had everything I was looking for in a historical fiction – romance, mystery, and whole load of well-researched historical background.
While both women’s stories were interesting, I was more drawn to Clara Darden. She is brash, unapologetically ambitious, talented and confident, and I loved her for all those characteristics. Her story is more about her fight for recognition as a female artist in a world dominated by men. She also adds a little romance into the story as she draws the attention of two wildly opposing men – wealthy, budding poet Oliver Smith and passionate, temperamental but talented painter Levon Zakarian. These two men would influence Clara’s story, helping her reach her dream of drawing cover illustrations for Vogue and challenging her to step out of her comfort zone to create what is to be her masterpiece, The Siren. This work, thought to be destroyed in a tragic train crash serves as a tie to Virginia’s story.
I loved how Clara and Virginia connected. They are both different and similar both of the same time. Virginia’s challenges may have been different from Clara’s but both women faced them with incredible tenacity and toughness, and I think the latter saw this as well nearing the end of the book. I’m sure she saw a bit of her younger herself in Virginia, and I think this is why she still kept on talking to the younger woman even though her tendency towards insistence and naivety initially annoyed her.
Meanwhile, for Virginia who is still struggling with her mastectomy and recent divorce, the solving The Siren’s mystery and helping save Grand Central from demolition gave her a new sense of direction. She’s bulheaded in her own way, never stopping her search even when blocks are thrown her way. It’s sublime but it takes a certain amount of strength to push through all those challenges especially after what Virginia has already been through, and this, for me, is what makes her character so relatable and likable.
The dual perspective and the time-jumping were seamless. And, for a historical fiction, this one was actually pretty fast-paced, which was a nice surprise for me. The bits of Grand Central history weaved into the narrative were fascinating, adding more color and richness to Clara’s and Virginia’s stories.
I definitely and insistently recommend The Masterpiece to everyone and anyone who loves historical fiction. I cannot rave about this book enough. It was just that good!