The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
I long for books that capture my interest from the first, and hold my attention so that I avoid doing almost anything else until I finish. I didn’t dislike The Fifth Avenue Artists Society, but it was at times an uncomfortable read and I found it easy to put down. But since finishing, I’ve found myself thinking about the characters and doing research about the time period and settings.
Set in the late 1800s in New York City, the book tells the story of Ginny Loftin and her siblings, three sisters and one brother. They’re known as intellectuals, with each having a unique talent. Ginny has longed to be a writer since she was a young girl, and her dreams are encouraged by her best friend, Charlie who wants to be an artist. Ginny thought they would marry, but soon after the book opens Charlie breaks her heart by proposing to another woman at a party at which Ginny is also in attendance.
Charlie’s reasons make sense for the time. Although both his and Ginny’s families are invited to many society occasions, they’re poor and live only on its fringes. Charlie’s mother will soon lose their family home, and by marrying a wealthy woman he will be able to save it. But while she is aware of this, Ginny is devastated and spends days locked in her room writing the fictional story of hers and Charlie’s lives, albeit with a happy ending.
I had difficulty connecting with Ginny early on. I felt sorry for her, but just wasn’t captivated. Things picked up for me when her brother Franklin gets her out of the house and takes her to an artists’ salon at one of his friend’s homes, where she meets numerous famous writers. My knowledge of this period of American history isn’t my strongest, but even I recognize the names of some of the real characters Ginny encounters at the society including Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton.
Charlie’s and Ginny’s lives continue to be intertwined over the ensuing months, with Charlie regretting his decision and declaring his love for Ginny even after he’s married. Ginny works hard to focus on her writing, and becomes entangled with a number of artists in the group, including John, who is best friends with Ginny’s brother, who does everything he can to encourage John and Ginny’s budding relationship. As Ginny gets more involved with the other artists, she notices Franklin is acting out of character and seems to suddenly have more money than can readily be explained. While Ginny is the main focus of the book, each of her siblings also encounters numerous difficulties and crises, and not all of them come out in a great place.
The final chapter skips ahead 40 years – almost like an epilogue – and we learn some of what occurred in the intervening years. I found myself wishing that some of the earlier crises had been removed and the book had instead focused on events that occurred in the ensuing 40 years because many sound quite fascinating.
I was interested to learn in the writer’s notes at the end that the Loftin family is real, with some of the stories told to the author by her relatives. She admits, however, that she’s changed some facts of the real story, while others remain a mystery.
I had a hard time classifying this in terms of genre. While a few characters do get a bit of a HEA, it’s not the focus of the book. There are also some clear mysteries that occur, some of which are solved while others are not. In the end, it feels more like historical fiction.
I can definitely say this was an interesting read, which sounds a bit like damning with faint praise. Can I say I enjoyed it throughout? No, definitely not. Nonetheless, the author was successful enough to have me thinking about the characters and time period weeks after finishing, and for that I can recommend it.