Desert Isle Keeper
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018. The story centers around an art school that existed on the seventh floor of New York City’s Grand Central Station during the first half of the twentieth century, something I knew absolutely nothing about before I started reading this book. The story was utterly riveting, just like I knew it would be, making it a dual-timeline story I’m more than happy to recommend.
It’s 1928, and twenty-five-year-old Clara Darden has come to New York City in hopes of becoming a successful illustrator. While she waits for her work to be discovered, she takes a job as an instructor at The Grand Central School of Art. It’s obvious to both her students and fellow teachers that Clara is extremely talented, but the world as a whole isn’t receptive to women artists. Still, Clara is determined to make a name for herself in the art world, even if it takes her years to do it.
Fortunately, Clara makes the acquaintance of two influential men who are willing and able to help her realize her dreams. One is an experimental painter who has achieved a modicum of success in the art world, and the other is the son of a very wealthy family who longs to throw off the restrictions his social class has placed on him and make a living as a poet. Clara does her best to balance her time and affection evenly between the two men, but as time goes by and her star finally begins to rise, both begin to feel threatened by her new-found fame.
And then, the stock market crashes, plunging the entire country into a pit of utter despair. Suddenly, Clara and her friends are struggling to survive in a world unlike anything they’ve ever known.
Almost fifty years later, Grand Central Station has fallen on hard times. It’s become a dark, dingy, dangerous place that many people view as an eyesore. But for Virginia Clay, a middle-aged woman struggling to put her life back together in the wake of a nasty divorce, it offers a chance at redemption that she can’t possibly turn away from.
Virginia is working in the information booth at the station. At first, she dislikes her job, but as she gets to know her co-workers and the history of the terminal, she starts to develop a soft spot for the decrepit building. One evening, she wanders into the now-abandoned art school and unearths a watercolor painted by Clara Darden. It’s obvious to Virginia that the painting is incredibly well-done, and she decides to learn more about the woman who created it. As she digs deep into the history of the art school, Virginia uncovers long-buried secrets with the power to change the landscape of the art world.
It’s quite common for one story in a dual-timeline novel to be more interesting than the other, but Ms. Davis manages to make both narratives equally compelling. Clara and Virginia are women ahead of their times, and I loved watching them navigate societies bent on keeping them oppressed. Neither woman’s story comes off as unnecessary, and I can’t imagine this book being written any other way.
It’s rare for the setting of a novel to feel like a character in its own right, but that’s exactly how I felt about Ms. Davis’s depiction of Grand Central Station. It’s obvious she did a great deal of research into the terminal’s history, and I admire the way she wove what she learned into her story. I learned a lot without feeling like someone was trying to teach me something.
I absolutely adored Virginia’s colleagues, who are exactly the kind of quirky people I’d love to spend time with in real life. It’s clear they all have their own struggles, but their warmth and openness are so lovely to behold. I was sad to say goodbye to them when I reached the end of the novel, and that’s not something that usually happens to me with supporting characters.
The Masterpiece is sure to appeal to both those who have enjoyed Ms. Davis’ previous novels as well as those who are picking up one of her books for the first time. It’s a delightful blend of historical detail, intriguing characters, and compelling suspense, and it managed to exceed all of my expectations.