New York Historical
Several people on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page have recently requested recommendations for historical fiction, but hastened to say, “But not World War II please!” and it does seem like that conflict has dominated recently published popular historical fiction for a while now. I just discovered (through one of those BookBub daily deals on e-books) an author who specializes instead in a past/present focus on the important landmarks of New York City and the people who were somehow significant in their history or creation. I picked it up not so much for the connection to days of yore but because the story was art-related, but I was ultimately drawn in by the history.
Fiona Davis definitely has a formula. I have read two of her books now, and the introductory chapters of a third, and she plots them all similarly: Two protagonists, one living in the late 19th or early 20th century (1880-1940), the other in a more contemporary decade (1970s forward), who are either directly related or tangentially connected through the device of an iconic New York building and also through the ploy of a mystery to be solved. They remind me in this way of Kate Morton’s books, although they are neither as lengthy nor as literary in their language.
The first that I read, The Masterpiece, follows the fortunes of Grand Central Terminal, featuring little-known details of its history. The “early” protagonist, Clara Darden, is a struggling artist who has managed to snag a position as a temporary teacher of illustration at the prestigious Grand Central School of Art, an uncommon feat for a young woman in 1928. But Clara is determined that her drawings will, someday soon, grace the cover of Vogue magazine, and she uses every opportunity, including the influence of the two men in her life—one a wealthy poet, the other a bohemian painter—to make her ambitions come true. None of them knows that the Great Depression looms in their immediate future.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1974, Virginia Clay is recently divorced and desperate for work. After failing as a lawyer’s secretary, she reluctantly takes a job in the information booth of the rundown, grimy and dangerous Grand Central, and becomes invested in the fate of the once splendid building, whose historic status is now being challenged in the courts by a group who wishes to build a skyscraper on top of it. One day she takes a wrong turn and discovers an abandoned art school on a top floor of the building, where she finds a powerful watercolor hidden behind a cabinet and is introduced to the mystery of the artist Clara Darden, who disappeared in 1931. Virginia becomes determined to discover her fate, but there are several people who don’t wish her to succeed.
The second book, The Address, is centered around the famous Dakota apartment house, “the” address at which to live. The first part of the story takes place in 1884, when Sara Smythe, a young housekeeper in a London hotel, is lured to the United States by one of the Dakota’s architects, Theodore Camden, with the promise of a managerial position at the brand new building on the verge of opening its doors. Theo, his wife and three children occupy one of the luxury apartments, and regular contact between Sara and Theo soon leads to a forbidden association that will have long-lasting implications for all of them
The second protagonist is Bailey Camden, descendent of a ward of Theodore Camden and his wife, Minnie, a hard-partying young interior designer whose addictions have caused her to squander her chances with a major design firm. Just out of rehab in September of 1985, Bailey is floundering, trying to keep herself from drinking while looking for any kind of work in her field, in a town where her name is synonymous with disaster. She turns to her cousin, Melinda, a direct descendent and heir of the Camden family, who hires her to supervise the redecoration of Melinda’s apartment at The Dakota. There’s no money in it until Melinda comes into her inheritance at age 30 (still a few months away), but at least Bailey has a place to stay (the servants’ quarters of the apartment), a job to keep her mind engaged, and a local daily AA meeting. But while finding storage down in the basement for some of the classic ornamentation Melinda is insisting be ripped from the walls of the apartment so it can be modernized, Bailey discovers some artifacts in an old trunk that indicate the past history of her family may not be at all what she has been led to believe.
Other books feature backdrops such as the New York Public Library, the Chelsea Hotel, the Frick mansion/museum, and the Barbizon. They all seem to stay true to form, with two protagonists separated by half a century, and a mystery to be solved that connects the two through the agency of the building. But despite this repetitive device, the books are enjoyable reads, with engaging characters and vividly painted scenes; Davis seems to rigorously research the entire history, not just that of the buildings but also the habits, mores, clothing, hairstyles, and other minute details of the time periods involved. I also enjoyed the diversity in age and occupation of her main characters—they are of all stages and all life situations, and their vulnerabilities and failures are poignant and ring true.
I have never been to New York City (though I’ve always wanted to go), but I imagine these books would be particularly impactful for those to whom these buildings are familiar sights in their daily travels. Even never having been there, the books make it easy to picture. I don’t know whether I will read on, but those teaser chapters at the end of the previous e-book definitely snare your attention before you know it, so more Fiona Davis may be in my future.