For most New Yorkers, 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. It is 1928, and Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. Though not even the prestige of the school can override the public's disdain for a "woman artist," fiery Clara is single-minded in her quest to achieve every creative success—even while juggling the affections of two very different men. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they'll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression...and that even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.
By 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay's life. Dilapidated and dangerous, 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, 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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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New York City, April 1928
Clara Darden's illustration class at the Grand Central School of Art, tucked under the copper eaves of the terminal, was unaffected by the trains that rumbled through ancient layers of Manhattan schist hundreds of feet below. But somehow, a surprise visit from Mr. Lorette, the school's director, had the disruptive power of a locomotive weighing in at thousands of tons.
Even before Mr. Lorette was a factor, Clara had been anxious about the annual faculty exhibition set to open at six o'clock that evening. Her first show in New York City, and everyone important in the art and editorial worlds would be there. She'd been working on her illustrations for months now, knowing this might be her only chance.
She asked her class to begin work on an alternate cover design for Virginia Woolf's latest book, and the four ladies dove in eagerly, while Wilbur, the only male and something of a rake to boot, sighed loudly and rolled his eyes. Gertrude, the most studious of the five members, was so offended by Wilbur's lack of respect that she threatened to toss a jar of turpentine at him. They were still arguing vociferously when Mr. Lorette waltzed in.
Never mind that these were all adults, not children. Whenever Wilbur made a ruckus, it had the unfortunate effect of lowering the entire class's maturity level by a decade. More often than not, Clara was strong enough to restore order before things went too far. But Mr. Lorette seemed possessed of a miraculous talent for sensing the rare occasions during which Clara lost control of the room, and he could usually be counted upon to choose such times to wander by and assess her skills as an educator.
"Miss Darden, do you need additional supervision again?" Mr. Lorette's bald pate shone as if it had been buffed by one of the shoeshine boys in the terminal's main concourse. The corners of his mouth curled down, even when he was pleased, while his eyebrows moved independently of each other, like two furry caterpillars trying to scurry away. Even though he was only in his early thirties, he exuded the snippety nature of a judgmental great-aunt.
He'd been appointed director three years earlier, after one of the school's illustrious founders, John Singer Sargent, passed away. The school had increased in reputation and enrollment with each new term, and Mr. Lorette had given himself full credit for its smashing success when he'd interviewed Clara. She'd been promoted from student monitor to interim teacher after Mr. Lorette's chosen instructor dropped out at the last minute, putting her on uneven footing from the beginning. It hadn't helped that the class had shriveled to five from an initial January enrollment of fifteen. Ten of those early enrollees had walked out on the first day, miffed at having a woman in charge.
Mr. Lorette's dissatisfaction, and the likelihood that she'd not be asked back next term, mounted each week, which meant tonight's faculty show would probably be her last opportunity to get her illustrations in front of the city's top magazine editors.
Since coming to New York the year before, Clara had dutifully dropped off samples of her work at the offices of Vogue and McCall's every few months, to no avail. The responses ranged from the soul-crushing-"Unoriginal/No"-to the encouraging-"Try again later." All that would change, tonight. She hoped. By seeing her work in the hallowed setting of the Grand Central Art Galleries, alongside the well-known names of other faculty members, the editors would finally appreciate what she had to offer. Even better, as the only illustrator on the faculty, she was sure to stand out.
Mr. Lorette cleared his throat.
"No, sir. We don't need any assistance. Thank you for checking in." She maneuvered around to the front of the table where she'd been working, in an attempt to block his view of her own sketches.
No luck. He circled around and stood behind it, his nose twitching. "What is this?"
"Some figures I was working on, to demonstrate the use of compass points to achieve the correct proportions."
"I thought you'd covered that already."
"You can never go back to the basics enough."
He offered a suspicious nod before winding his way through the tables, his eyes darting from drawing board to drawing board. Her students stood back, hoping for a kind word.
"Why is it each student seems to be drawing something completely different from the other?"
She nodded at the novel she'd left out on the still-life table. "The assignment was to create a cover for a book. I encouraged them to use their imaginations."
"Their examples of lighthouses and beaches are apropos. Yet you are drawing undergarments?"
Even if he had been a more sympathetic man, there was no way to explain how the hours stretched painfully long with her having so few students. How the skylights diffused the light in a way that made each day, whether sunny or overcast, feel exactly like every other. She routinely made the rounds, suggesting that a drybrush would work best to create texture or offering encouragement when Gertrude became frustrated, but at some point, the students had to be left alone to get to their work. Which is why today she'd pulled a chair up to a drawing table and sketched out the figures for her latest commission from Wanamaker Department Store: three pages of chemises for the summer catalog. The work paid a pittance, but at least it was something.
"This is for tomorrow's class," she lied. "As we do not have a live model to work from, I was planning on using a work of my own to guide them."
As she hoped, the mention of her standing request for a model redirected his attention.
His voice rose in pitch to that of a schoolgirl. "The students are free to take a life class at any time. This is an illustration class, and right now our models are reserved for the fine arts classes. As you said, they can use their imaginations, no?"
"But it is not ideal. If we can have a model to understand the anatomy underneath the fashions, to have the model begin nude and then add layers of clothing, we could build upon what we've learned already."
She never meant to be ornery, but somehow Mr. Lorette brought out a stubbornness in her every time.
"As yours is a class of mixed genders, taught by a woman, having a nude model would be most inappropriate. I'm sorry you find our school so deficient, Miss Darden." He clucked his tongue, which made her want to reach into his mouth and pull it out. "The other instructors, who have vastly more experience than you do, seem to manage just fine."
The other instructors-all men-had their every whim met by Mr. Lorette. She'd seen it in action, the director encouraging them to stop by his office for a smoke, the group laughing at some private joke, the director's feet propped up on his desk in an attempt to convey casual masculinity. Clara didn't fit the mold, which made her vulnerable.
"I'm sure we can manage, sir."
He shuffled off, closing the door behind him.
She directed the class to continue. Gertrude's work had only three rips from her overuse of the razor for corrections, a record low for her.
"Your stormy clouds are exquisite, but where would the lettering of the title and author go?" Clara asked.
Gertrude rubbed her nose with her wrist, leaving a gray streak at the tip. "Right. I got so caught up, I forgot."
Clara pointed to the top edge. "Try a damp sponge on the wet areas to lift out some color."
The girl was always eager, even if her strong hand was better suited to clay or oils than to the careful placement of watercolor, where mistakes were difficult to correct. Use too much water, and a brilliant cauliflower pattern would bloom where a smooth line ought to have been. Too dry, and the saturated color would stick to the page, resisting softening. But Clara loved watercolor in spite of, or perhaps because of, its difficult temperament. The way the paper shone after a wash of cool orange to convey a sunset, how the colors blended together in the tray to form new ones that probably didn't even have a name.
Finally, five o'clock came around. The students stored their artwork in the wooden racks, and once the room was empty, Clara hid her own sketches up on the very top of the storage cabinet, away from Mr. Lorette's prying eyes.
Starving, she headed downstairs to the main concourse, where cocoa-pink walls trimmed in Botticino marble soared into the air. Electrically lit stars and painted constellations twinkled along the turquoise vaulted ceiling, although the poor artist had inadvertently painted the sky backward, a mistake the art students loved to remark upon.
The first time she'd entered the hallowed space, stepping off the train from Arizona last September, she'd stopped and stared, her mouth open, until a man brushed past her, swearing under his breath at her inertia. The vastness of the main concourse, where sunshine beamed through the giant windows and bronze chandeliers glowed, left her gobsmacked. With its exhilarating mix of light, air, and movement, the terminal was the perfect location for a school of art.
Since then, she'd been sure to glance up quickly before joining in what seemed like an elaborate square dance of men and maids, of red-capped porters and well-dressed society ladies, all gliding by one another at various angles, yet never colliding. She liked best to lean over the banister on the West Balcony and watch the patterns of people flowing around the circular information booth, which sat in the middle of the floor, its four-faced clock tipped with a gleaming gold acorn.
Her stomach growled. She followed a group of smartly dressed men down the ramp to the suburban concourse and into the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant, where she secured a seat at the counter.
A young woman wearing a black velvet coat trimmed with fur hovered behind Clara, offering an inquisitive smile. "Yes, I thought that might be you. I'm Nadine Stevenson. I take painting classes at the school. You're having a bite before the show?"
"I am, Miss Stevenson."
"Oh now, call me Nadine."
Nadine's nose was large, her eyes close together and deep-set. Her right eye was slightly larger than the left, and the asymmetry was unsettling but powerful. Clara couldn't help but imagine how Picasso might approach her, all mismatched cubes and colors. Next to her stood an Adonis of a man whose symmetrical beauty offered a fascinating counterpoint. Shining blue-gray eyes under arched brows, hair the color of wheat.
"And this is Mr. Oliver Smith, a friend and poet."
Even though Clara had hoped to eat dinner in peace, she didn't have much of a choice. "Lovely to meet you both; please join me."
They took the stools next to her as the waiter stopped in front of them, pen in hand. Clara ordered the oyster stew, as did Oliver. Nadine requested peeled Muscat grapes, followed by a lobster cocktail.
Many of the young girls at the Grand Central School of Art had enrolled only so they could list it in their wedding announcements someday-a creative outlet that wouldn't threaten future in-laws. Nadine seemed to fall into that category, with her airs and pearls.
"Miss Darden is the only lady teacher at the Grand Central School of Art," said Nadine to Oliver. "She teaches illustration." She turned to Clara with a bright smile. "Now tell us about what you'll be showing tonight."
"Four illustrations that depict four seasons of high fashion." Clara couldn't help but elaborate. She'd put so much thought into the drawings. "For example, the one for winter depicts three women draped in fur coats, walking poodles sporting matching pelts."
"Well, that sounds pleasant."
Was Nadine making fun of her? Clara couldn't tell. She'd hardly had time to socialize, other than occasionally trading a few words with some of the other women artists who lived in her Greenwich Village apartment house. She'd been far too busy trying to make a living.
Nadine placed one hand on the counter and leaned in closely. The citrus scent of Emeraude perfume drifted Clara's way. "Did you know that Georgia O'Keeffe-she does those astonishing flowers-was a commercial artist at first? There's no need to be ashamed of it, not at all. Illustration is a common stepping-stone into the true arts."
"I'm not ashamed in the least." The audacity. Clara didn't enjoy being talked down to by a student. "I don't intend to do the 'true arts,' Nadine, as you put it. I enjoy illustration; it's what I do best."
"Well, I adore my life drawing and painting class. I'm learning so much from my instructor, Mr. Zakarian. He made me class monitor, and he's magnificent."
Jealousy pinged. None of Clara's students would describe her in such superlative terms, of that she was quite certain. "Class monitor, that's quite an honor. Do you plan on becoming an artist, then?"
Nadine gave out a squeak of a laugh. "Oh dear, no. I'm only taking classes for personal enrichment."
The waiter dropped off their bowls, and for a moment nothing was said. If Clara were alone, she would have surreptitiously folded a dozen or so oyster crackers into her handkerchief, to have something to snack on before bed.
The poet, who'd been silent the entire time, finally spoke. "My mother was an artist, although my father insisted she give it up after they married. She's been sick lately, but she very much misses going to museums and exhibits."
"I'm sorry to hear that," offered Clara. "Nadine mentioned that you're a poet?"
"Nadine is too kind in her description of me. Struggling poet, you might say. I suppose I take after my mother in that regard, having an innate love of the arts. My father is hoping I'll give it up eventually and go into banking."
Nadine placed a protective hand on his arm. "Oliver was accepted to Harvard and refused to go. Can you imagine? Instead, he's slumming it with us bohemians."
By all accounts, Nadine was hardly slumming it. But Clara understood firsthand what it was like to disappoint your family. "When I told my father I was moving to New York, he told me to not bother coming back. It's not an easy decision, but I'm glad I made it."
Oliver's blue eyes danced. "So there's hope for us miscreants?"
They shared a look, a quick knowing smile, that sent Clara's pulse racing.
Usually, men didn't give her a second glance. Her father generously described her as "ethereal" for her blond hair, pale skin, and towering, skinny figure. Her mother said she looked washed out and encouraged her to wear clothes that added color to her complexion, but Clara preferred blacks and grays. Her ghostly pallor and height had always been sore points, embarrassing, and she preferred to avoid drawing attention to herself.
Oliver tucked into his stew. She did the same, embarrassed. She must have imagined the exchange.
Nadine took over the reins of the conversation. “Now, where are you from, Miss Darden?”
“Arizona.” She waited for the inevitable intake of breath. The American West might as well have been Australia, for how shocked most East Coast natives were at her having come all this way. “You’ve come all this way! Gosh. What does your father do? Is he a cowboy?”
“He sells metals.”
Clara deliberately used the present tense instead of the past when speaking of her family’s fortunes—now their misfortunes. Her father’s fraudulent scheming was no longer any of Clara’s concern, nor of anyone else’s. Luckily, Nadine went on and on about her own father’s real estate business, more for Oliver’s benefit than Clara’s, as Clara quickly finished her meal.
She looked up at the clock. “I must go; the doors will be opening soon.”
But there was no slipping away. Nadine locked arms with Clara as they walked out of the restaurant, as if they’d been friends for years. To the left and right, ramps sloped back up to the concourse, framed by glorious marble arches, and a vaulted ceiling rose above their heads in a herringbone pattern. Clara had tried to duplicate the earth‑and‑sable tones of the tiles in one of her illustrations to be shown tonight.
“Wait, before we go, stand over there.” Oliver pointed to a spot where two of the arches met.
“Face right into the corner and listen carefully.”
Clara had no time for games but watched as Nadine did as she was told. Oliver took up a spot at the opposite corner and mouthed something Clara couldn’t hear. Nadine giggled.
“What’s so funny?” Clara asked.
“You’ve got to try it. We’re in the Whispering Gallery.” Begrudgingly, Clara took up Nadine’s position.
The words drifted over her like a ghost. Oliver might as well have been standing close by, speaking right into her ear. She looked up, trying to figure out how the shape of the ceiling transmitted sound waves so effortlessly. She faced the corner again. “Recite a poem to me.”
For a moment, she wasn’t sure if he would. Then the disembodied voice returned.
That whisper takes the voice
Of a Spirit, speaking to me,
Close, but invisible,
And throws me under a spell.
She swore she could feel the heat of Oliver’s breath. They locked eyes as they met once again in the center of the space.
“Thomas Hardy. The poem’s called ‘In a Whispering Gallery,’” Oliver volunteered.
Nadine crossed her arms, indignant. “You didn’t recite verse to me.” “I’ll regale you next time, I promise. For now, I must head to a poetry reading downtown and amass further inspiration.”
Clara shook hands and they took their leave, the poem still echoing in her head.
The mob of nattily dressed art lovers trying to squeeze their way through the gallery’s doorway had already backed up to the elevator by the time Clara and Nadine arrived. They toddled through, tak‑ ing small steps so as not to get their toes crushed, until they were safely inside.
The Grand Central Art Galleries predated the school by two years, when a businessman‑turned‑artist named Walter Clark had enlisted the help of John Singer Sargent to convert part of the sixth floor into a massive exhibition space, a kind of artists’ cooperative where commissions were kept to a minimum. Clara stopped by at least once a week to see the latest works, and she encouraged her students to do the same. The rooms were rarely empty, as visitors to New York and everyday commuters continually drifted through.
Tonight, the room buzzed with energy. The faculty’s work would stay up for a week, before being replaced with the students’ work, a celebration of the school’s spring term and its growing prestige. Clara’s illustrations would be on the same walls that once displayed Sargent’s portraits. The thought made her giddy.
Located on the south side of the terminal, the Grand Central Art Galleries were four times as long as they were wide, a warren of rooms and hallways, twenty in all, that encouraged visitors to circulate in a counterclockwise manner without ever having to double back. Clara scanned the walls of the first gallery for her work, with no luck. In the middle of the space, the sculpture teacher stood be‑ side a table featuring two nymphs, both nude, one standing on a turtle.
“Now, that’s unremarkable,” said Nadine.
Clara agreed but kept her mouth shut. They continued on, to where a group of students surveyed an oil of an ungainly horse. Towering above them all was the artist, an instructor for the life drawing and painting class.
Clara had seen him a few times before. A foreigner, he was known to sing loudly during his classes and even dance about at times. This evening, he stood to the side, listening with intensity as his acolytes buttered him up, every so often tossing his head in a futile effort to flick a thatch of hair out of his eyes. Indeed, he was more horselike than the horse in his painting.
“That’s my teacher. Mr. Zakarian.” Nadine sidled up next to him. Clara had seen women like her before, flinging themselves into the orbits of handsome or powerful men to fend off their own insecurities. Clara had no time for such nonsense.
Back to the task at hand. The air had become stifling as more people crammed in. She ventured into room after room before circling back, and still she didn’t see her illustrations.
A flash of panic seized her. Her job with Wanamaker was ending soon. They’d recently announced that they’d be using only in‑house artists going forward. Her salary of seventy‑five dollars a month from teaching covered her expenses, but not much more. And she could not count on the next term.
She wormed her way back one more time through the mazelike space. Nothing. Down one hallway, off to the right, was a door marked sales office. She’d passed by it in her first go‑round, assuming it to be a place for clerks to write up invoices. The door stood halfway open, the lights on. She peered inside.
It was more a closet than a room, with a scratched‑up desk against one wall and a wooden file cabinet wedged into a corner.
There, above the desk, equally spaced apart and centered on the wall with great care, were her illustrations.
By the time she found Mr. Lorette, Clara’s limbs shook with rage. He was in an animated conversation with Mr. Zakarian while Mrs. Lorette looked on. Clara had met her in passing at one of the faculty get‑togethers, awed by the puffy, out‑of‑date pompadour that perched on the woman’s head like a long‑haired cat.
She inserted herself into the group. “Mr. Lorette, my illustrations have been hung in a back office. A back office!”
While Mr. Lorette sputtered at her rudeness, she continued on. “I am a faculty member of the School of Art, and yet my work has been placed in a cave where no one would think to go.”
“I am sorry, Miss Darden. We were in a tight spot, you see.” He paused. “Quite literally.”
As Mr. Lorette laughed at his own joke, Clara noticed the editor of Vogue headed for the exit. For certain, he’d never even seen her work.
Mr. Zakarian spoke up. “Where was her art hung?”
“Just off a main gallery,” said Mr. Lorette. “They are illustrations. We concluded they were more suited to an intimate environment.”
“Perhaps you could guarantee her a spot here in the first room next year, to make it up to her?” Mr. Zakarian held out his hand to Clara. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Mr. Levon Zakarian, one of your fellow teachers.”
She shook it without looking at him, her glare fixed on Mr. Lorette. “Next year it’ll be too late. It’s already too late.”
Unlike students such as Nadine, for whom the Grand Central School of Art was just a pit stop on the way to marital bliss, Clara had sunk every ounce of energy into her career as an artist.
Against her parents’ wishes, she’d arrived in New York, knowing no one, and done everything she could to make it as an illustrator. What made it worse was knowing she’d been given a shot that other artists would have been envious of—to teach at the Grand Central School of Art, to show her work at the galleries—only to see it vaporize.
Mr. Lorette shrugged. “I can’t seem to please anyone tonight. We will make it up to you; my deepest apologies, Miss Darden.” He turned to Mr. Zakarian. “Have you seen Edmund’s latest work? Come with me. I assure you it’ll give you something to think about.”
“I believe Miss Darden may give you something to think about, if you try to shake her off.” Mr. Zakarian wore a crooked smile. “I have an idea. Let’s take down one of mine, and we’ll replace it with her work. Get it right out there in the center.”
She didn’t need one of the faculty stars to swoop down and protect her. The very thought made her sick with embarrassment.
Unwilling to give Mr. Lorette any further satisfaction at her distress, Clara stormed out without uttering a reply.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read Fiona Davis’s other books and preordered this one. I love how she takes a historical place and creates a story for two different points in time. Her characters are appealing, her writing flows and just like The Address and The Dollhouse, I couldn’t stop reading The Masterpiece. I highly recommend her books and can’t wait for the next one!
I have read Fiona Davis' other books and have enjoyed them. She uses an historical building and weaves a story. This book is about Grand Central Station. The story and historical facts were well done. I want to visit Grand Central and find out more about it .
I loved the history behind the story. The story of incredibly strong women was the icing on the cake.
True and fiction meet in a grand way
Wonderful characters solving important issues with years of history. I knew hardly anything about this era of artists and learned so much while being thoroughly entertained. Super good read!
This is the first book I've read by Fiona Davis, and I loved it. The novel flips back and forth between 1929 and 1974 and revolves around the Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the art school that used to be inside. In 1928, Clara is an up-and-coming art student turned part-time art teacher who is trying to break into the male-dominated art world with her illustrations. In 1974, Virginia's life has fallen apart and she ends up finding a job in the terminal, where she meets some interesting characters and finds a lost piece of art. When Virginia decides to search to find out who the true artist of the painting is, she goes on a journey that leads her to a surprising ending to the story. Such a good book!
4.5 Stars rounded up to 5. I very much enjoyed The Address by Fiona Davis and was looking forward to this book. She is a masterful storyteller with the ability to completely transport her readers into a different world. The Masterpiece is another wonderful story, but I did not connect to the characters as well as I did in her previous book. Saying that, I still enjoyed this story quite a bit and felt for both Clara and Virginia. The Masterpiece tells the story of two women, who both work at Grand Central Terminal, fifty years apart. Clara is an illustrator, who is teaching at the art school housed at Grand Central. She is not considered an artist, but she has more talent than some of the male teachers and artists. Virginia is a recent divorcee and single mother, who is trying to support herself and her daughter. She is working in the information book at the Terminal. Both of these women are trying to find their way in a world dominated by men. I absolutely loved this storyline, and doing it all within the confines of Grand Central Terminal was very interesting. There was so much going on in the story that I was not familiar with, and the story was so realistic that I felt like I was there. I loved the inclusion of Jackie Onassis trying to save the Landmark status of the terminal. Her descriptions, down to the smallest details, are so realistic. It truly feels like you are reading memories. I love the way she is able to blend the lives of these two women so well adding in art history, romance, intrigue, scandal, and drama. Throw in some amazing secondary characters and it is hard to put this book down. I listened to the audiobook of this story and it was amazing. She did a great job of sharing this story without worrying about voices, she told the story to me. Overall, I loved this story. It is important that you read the Author's Notes at the back of the book as she gives information about her research, what parts of the book are real and which fiction, and what and who the characters are based on. If you are a fan of of historical fiction and books that are character driven, then you need to pick up The Masterpiece, or any books by Fiona Davis.
The story definitely matches the title. This book is a masterpiece. There are two different character storylines and two different time periods. One storyline starts in 1928 New York, during prohibition, the other starts in 1974, and eventually, the two storylines come together. Fiona Davis is brilliant when it comes to writing stories set in two different time periods that flow extremely well and blend together seamlessly. I can't wait to see what's coming next.
Virginia is a recent divorcee in the 1970’s with a teenage daughter to look after. So she finds what work she can, which just happens to be in NYC’s Grand Central Terminal at the information booth. The work seems dreary and pathetic until she accidentally stumbles into an old art room in the upper levels of the building, closed off to everyone, which was once home to an art school in the 20s, and has been the home of a hidden painting which may be worth a fortune. She also stumbles into a relationship with a man who is determined to tear down her new place of employment, unable to see its value or historic beauty. Clara is an artist in the 20s, an illustrator turned teacher who is still seeking passion in art, something ignited by an arrogant fellow teacher and artist, Levon Zakarian. She became the greatest female illustrator of the time, but a desire to create something more, from her soul, is whetted by the fellow teacher and funded by her new wealthy patron boyfriend. Yet history reveals her name left in obscurity following a tragedy. Virginia must survive her own personal tragedies, try to help save Grand Central, and uncover the secrets of a great lost painting and artist. The Masterpiece is a clever historical fiction mystery paralleling two women, one living in the art world of the 20’s and the other fighting to save and restore NYC's Grand Central Terminal in the 70’s. This thrilling, fascinating novel even features a bit of truth in the part played by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to help save one historical New York masterpiece.
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis is a dual timeline novel. It is April in 1928 in New York City where Clara Darden works as an illustration teacher at Grand Central School of Art. She is the only female faculty member and looked down upon because she is woman and an illustrator. After being taken under the wing of Oliver Smith, a poet and Levon Zakarian, a brash artist, Clara’s star starts to rise. Clara becomes the go-to illustrator for Vogue and she even designs a car. But looming on the horizon is the great depression and a horrible accident. Virginia Clay has been divorced almost a year and is forced to get a job in 1974 New York. After being unsuccessful as lawyer’s secretary, Virginia is assigned to the information booth at Grand Central Terminal. The building has deteriorated over the years and now there is a lawsuit to demolish the historical landmark to pave the way for a skyscraper. Virginia gets lost one day and stumbles into the area that once belonged to the Grand Central School of Art. She spies a beautiful painting hidden behind a cabinet in the storage room after an unexpected encounter. Virginia is drawn to the work of art and decides to take it with her. Little does she know that this one act will propel her into a mystery that goes back to 1928 and will include threatening letters. I found The Masterpiece to be an engaging story. It is well-written and has steady pacing. The POV switches between Clara and Virginia as the tale unfolds. The transitions were smooth, and it was easy to keep track of the various characters. Fiona Davis is a descriptive writer which brings the book alive. I could picture Grand Central Terminal in my mind along with New York from Ms. Davis’ word imagery. I cannot believe that people wanted to demolish this architectural masterpiece. I felt she captured the time-periods with the language, clothing, the lifestyles and attitudes. I could tell that the author did her research and it was interesting to learn the history of the Grand Central Terminal. Ms. Davis created realistic characters that fit into their time periods. I preferred Clara over Virginia. I loved the descriptions of Clara’s artwork and how she evolved as an artist. I liked that Virginia cared for Grand Central Terminal and was willing to do what was needed to help save the building. The mystery was clever, and readers will be surprised at the reveal. Fiona Davis crafted a historical novel with a complex plot that will capture readers attention and hold it until the very end. The Masterpiece is my favorite novel by Fiona Davis and it is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.
The world of art in the 1930s was that of a rapidly changing scene, where “traditional” was evolving into “experimental,” where impressionism was turning to modern art. At the same time, artists were starving as the Depression was approaching and when there is no food, there is no money to buy or even admire art, as art shows cost money to sponsor. This is the story of Grand Central Station or Terminal in its glorious early and later recovery days. Clara is a young divorced woman, who is teaching a course on illustration art in the Grand Central School of Art. She is just hanging on to her position, as being an illustrator is not greatly respected. To some, it’s not even art! But forge on she does! Add to that the fact that she’s a woman and you’ve got the entire nasty picture. However, she and her bohemian, endearing friends console and strengthen each other, fall in and out of love together, and do all they can to make sure each is compelled to do their best artistic work possible. They’re an odd but motley, lovable bunch of characters who immediately and forever engage the reader to want to share their world. Fifty years later, Virginia Clay is working at the Grand Central Station Information Booth. She’s also divorced and unable to find any other job as she’s totally unskilled for any other job. She’s a breast cancer survivor as well, her self-image blasted after that experience. Her life is about to dramatically change after she accidentally discovers some abandoned art works from the Grand Central School of Art. She will discover one work of art that has a mystery and crime behind it which she and her daughter will relentlessly pursue to a nail-biting end. The Masterpiece… will thrill the soul of every reader as we get to experience the style, textures, tones, and colors of various styles of art as well as the minds, hearts and souls of the artists who created such notable works of art. It is light but gorgeous, thrilling reading which this reviewer highly, highly recommends! Loved it so!!! Keep writing, Fiona Davis!!! Your writing is highly creative, skilled, complex and simple at the same time! Admirable!
The stories of two women, Clara Darden and Virginia Clay, are used as the tie that somehow binds them to the history of New York's Grand Central Terminal. Clara is a young artist who teaches in the Grand Central Art Studio of the 1920's. Virginia is a divorce' in the 1970's, who suddenly finds herself in need of a job and becomes an attendant in Grand Central's information booth. Clara's story is that of a growing artist, from designing magazine illustrations to painting portraits in oils. One of her portraits, The Siren, is left in the studio in the '20's and is discovered by Virginia in the '70's. The women's stories are told in alternating chapters, involving various love interests and, in Virginia's life, a teenage daughter. The history of Grand Central is interestingly woven into the story, relative to Virginia's job there. Included are commentary about the lawsuit to accomplish its demise and the efforts of those, including Jackie Onassis, to see it preserved as a historic landmark. I found Clara's story to be more believable and compelling than Virginia's, perhaps because Clara' was actually an artist who taught at the studio in the 20's. Virginia's actions and dialogue with both her husband and her lover Dennis are somewhat shallow and unrealistic. Parts of The Masterpiece move smoothly and interestingly. Other parts are slower and not altogether seamless. It takes a lot of weaving to pull the story together. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review.
Gorgeous book inside and out (total cover crush!) about blazingly unique--and strong--woman separated by two different time periods and combining art, history, and memory, NYC, and a bit of woman's lib meets romance. , Fiona Davis has wow-ed me once again with THE MASTERPIECE (Dutton/Penguin/Random House August 7 2018), which I feel is exactly that--her best yet, in my opinion. What she excels at is so apparent: her meticulous research makes for a rich reading experience; plus dazzling prose, an element of mystery, and quite intriguing characters. It's 1928 and Clara Darden is a single woman artist living in NYC and teaching at the little-known Grand Central School of Art (which existed between 1924-1944 at the Grand Central Terminal). Clara is an up-and-coming illustrator but many of her contemporaries don't consider illustrations 'real art.' But it's her dream. She wants to create art for the cover of Vogue and yet she's not sure if she can break in. And then there's the Depression. But little will keep her from her dream. Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, another woman, Virginia, is met with a new challenge. Newly divorced and having lost her prestigious Upper East Side status, she and her 19-year old daughter, Ruby are struggling to make ends meet. Virginia takes a job at the dangerous and unsavory Grand Central Terminal in the information booth. It's a landmark building and the bones are gorgeous--if only it could be spiffed up. Then, Virginia learns the building's very existence is threatened as developers want to construct a skyscraper in its place. These two plots braid together in a sweeping narrative I found fully transportive. I loved Davis's prose, the blend of art, history, and fact and fiction. But also the strength and tenacity of women over the years. I'll admit to not fully warming to Clara's character, but that didn't take away the way I felt about the overall execution. A few plot points felt a little 'convenient,' but tension, intrigue, and set-up left the final 'twist' wholly inevitable. THE MASTERPIECE simply glittered and had me thinking about the role of art in challenging times, talking about the book with my family, and thinking about how woman have shaped the world.
The year is 1974 and Virginia Clay, recently divorced and looking to find a foothold in New York that will allow her to support herself and her daughter, she’s brought in to work in the information desk at the Grand Central Terminal by a temp agency. There to provide answers while seeing the grime, decline and less-than-savory aspects of this once grand edifice, she’s captivated by the potential of what was, even as the building is on a list of soon to be demolished properties in the name of progress. But, she uncovers a lovely watercolor as she’s discovering the history of the terminal, simply signed Clyde, Virginia decides she wants to know more about this hidden gem high in the building, and just what other treasures may be uncovered here. In 1928, a twenty-eight year old illustrator and artist, Clara Darden is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art. Talented and determined, she is constantly faced with the prejudice against her sex, and the public disdain for “lady artists” that came with a whole slew of pejoratives and assumptions about one’s personal moral code. Perhaps some were fitting, as Clara is single-mindedly determined to pursue her art, while never ignoring her own personal life: two suitors. Bohemian and oft scandalous friends, and a struggle with the turn of fortunes brought on by the depression will really push her determination to succeed to the edge. Alternate perspectives, both intriguing in their own right - the juxtaposition of the Terminal and it’s condition, from beloved and central meeting point in the 20’s to decrepit and awaiting the wrecking ball in the 70’s, it’s easy to imagine the space and the life within. But, while I loved the stories of both Clara and Virginia, neither really demanded my attention or connected in ways that gave them life - Clara was easy to understand and empathize with her challenges, while Virginia’s personality was subjugated to the search for this Clyde and her discoveries, but never once did I feel the ‘need’ that she had to look further, or deeper. Historically, the story was laden with information and atmosphere, and not having known of the Grand Central School of Art before, it was a clever and quite engaging introduction that encouraged me to look further at the artists passing through its doors. I don’t know if it was the sense that a building superseded the need for characters, or I wanted more empathy and connection to them, but the story became, for me, more about the history and changes than the characters who revealed them. I received an eARC copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
I jumped on the chance to read this because I really liked Fiona Davis's last book, The Address. The action goes back and forth between 1920s New York City in which Clara is teaching at Grand Central School of Art and trying to make it big as an illustrator and the 1970s in which newly divorced Virginia Clay is working at the Grand Central Terminal. Virginia stumbles upon a watercolor in the abandoned art school and sets out find the artist. This is a historical fiction book which also focuses on the real life effort to save Grand Central from being replaced with an office tower. Even though I don't have a big interest in the art world, I actually enjoyed that aspect of the story. What I loved about the book was the female characters who might have been down on their luck but really showed their strength when the going got tough. There was one part of the plot towards the end that I didn't really care for as it was a bit of an eye-roller but the story redeemed itself by the end. Definitely recommend if you like historical fiction and strong female characters. Thank you to First to Read for the advance digital copy! I was under no obligation to post a review and all views expressed are my honest opinion.
This novel follows two women, Virginia and Clara. Both are amazing! Clara is a young woman in the 1920’s. She becomes a famous illustrator…in the 1920’s, an awesome feat! Virginia is learning to be a divorced, single mom in the 1970’s. When Virginia discovers the abandoned art school in Grand Central Terminal, it leads her on a path unlike any other. Clara and Virginia both are unique women determined to make their way in this world. They both struggle to make a go at it. Clara trying to be an artist/illustrator. And Virginia is just trying to survive after her marriage has fallen apart. I loved both of these characters, especially Clara. Or maybe I just enjoyed her time period better. Y’all! This book!!! This book is super! It grabs you from the first word and never lets you go! The history is abundant and the mystery surrounding Clara is completely captivating. This novel is inundated with rich details of the Grand Central Terminal. Makes me want to go back and explore. This story is superbly written and well researched. I fell in love with the characters and the setting. I could go on and on…riveting, captivating…but you get the idea! I received this novel from the publisher via Netgalley.
The Masterpiece is another exceptional Work of Historical Fiction by Fiona Davis, I loved the two well researched historical time periods of the 1920’s and 1970’s. Ms. Davis always mixes history, mystery, suspense and just a little romance in her unshakable women’s lives. Her characters no matter what the adversity, they face what comes and stand firm. The art and architecture storylines were also educational and enjoyable. I recommend this title as well as The Dollhouse and The Address all are excellent. I look forward to reading more books by Fiona Davis. My thanks to the author and Penguin for a making this book available for me to read and review.
ERPIECE” BY FIONA DAVIS Penguin Group/ Dutton Publishing August 2018 Bravo to Fiona Davis , Author of “The Masterpiece” for writing an amazing, captivating, intense, riveting, entertaining and enthralling novel. I love everything about “The Masterpiece.” I appreciate the historical research that the author has done. Fiona Davis is a creative force when it comes to writing and describing the vivid images and colorful characters, combining fiction and historical fiction. The Genres of this novel are Historical Fiction, Fiction, Mystery with a dash of Romance. The spotlight and center of interest in the story is The Grand Central Station Terminal in New York City. There are two timelines, with different characters that depict the historical and fictional events. Part of the history in The Grand Central Station is the former ART school, where famous artists worked on their creative inspirations. There also was a ritzy apartment, that later housed a famed bar. In 1928, Clara Dane is teaching Art in the Grand Central Station School of Art. Clara’s strength is illustrations. Unfortunately women were not treated in equal measures to the men. Women Artists were looked down upon. Clara was not treated fairly. Clara’s claim to fame is that her illustrations land on the cover of Vogue Magazine. When the Great Depression occurs, it forces the owners to close down the Art School. Clara has two men that play a significant part in her life. Clara also dabbles in other forms of Art. With the Depression, things change. Fifty years late, in 1978 the Grand Central Station Terminal is in much need of a Facelift. Things are dirty, and there are homeless people as well as people dealing drugs hanging around. Virginia Clay, a divorced mom with a young daughter needs a job. Virginia finds employment working in the information booth in the terminal. When Virginia is wandering around, she finds the location of the old art school. Virginia also finds a gorgeous painting, actually a masterpiece. Virginia is determined to find out who the painter is. As Virginia investigates, she finds that she in possibly in danger. Sadly there is a discussion of tearing down the Grand Central Station Terminal. Led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, there is a group trying to preserve the history and integrity of this landmark. I love when the past and present merge. There are some Uh- Oh moments, and twist and turns. I highly recommend this fantastic intriguing novel , especially for those that enjoy Historical Fiction. I received an ARC from NetGalley to read and review.