Fiona Davis, whose latest historical fiction novel is called The Masterpiece, chose her timelines well in this work of fiction. This is one of those books that has two timelines in it; and this choice is more effective than most because of the way they contrast throughout the narrative and the way they come together at the end. The first story is set in 1928-1930; the second is set in 1974-1975; and the unifying theme is that they are both set in New York City. For one thing, there’s such a stark difference between the prosperous, glittering New York of the 1920s and the rundown, dirty New York of the 1970s. As the title indicates, there is a story that has to do with the art world going on throughout both narratives. It was fascinating to learn in the 1920s story that there was an art school in Grand Central Terminal in the early part of the 20th century; and this history of the building added depth to the struggle to preserve the Grand Central building as a historic monument, which appears in the 1970s story.
In both story lines, the main characters are women who are struggling in different ways. Clara Darden, a native of Arizona, is trying to make it as an illustrator and designer in Manhattan during the Jazz Age. Virginia Clay (whose commentary on her name is highly amusing) is a newly-divorced New Yorker who is figuring out her status as a single career woman in the era of second-wave feminism. The Grand Central Terminal figures largely in both of their stories; as the art school for Clara and as a workplace for Virginia.
And the masterpiece itself? It’s not by any artist that you’ve ever heard of (because, okay, the artist is a fictional character), which is decidedly refreshing after so many books about works by Rembrandt or Vermeer. The masterpiece is a painting, by the way, and it’s described so beautifully that I wish it were real so I could see it. This will make you want to head over to the Cleveland Museum of Art and check out the Abstract Expressionism collection for sure!
Other books that feature art in the story are:
The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose