Friday, February 8, 2019

The Masterpiece

Title:  The Masterpiece
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1524742953 / 978-1524742959

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "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."

Favorite Quote:  "Look at me. No one knows what I am. But I don't care, because I love the way I move in the world. I love my perspective on the world. I've earned it, and anyone else can go to hell. I wouldn't have wanted to paint you if I didn't think you were a fascinating subject:  a woman of a certain age, with the wounds to prove it. That's what interests me. Desperate to cover those wounds but still carrying them capably. A woman who is just learning her own strength."

Two women. Two time periods. One city. One beautiful old building. A book that tells both stories in alternating sections, winding them closer and closer together until by the end, all the connections are revealed, and the stories find a path forward. This is the structure used by many books including all three of the Fiona Davis books that I have read.

In this case, the location is Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The iconic landmark is of course known for its major function - that of a train station. Today, it is one of the world's most visited tourist attractions. It still is a working train station but is also home to numerous food, shopping, and event venues. In this book, I learned that for about twenty years from 1923 to 1944, Grand Central Terminal was also home to the the Grand Central School of Art.

Clara Darden, an instructor at the school, is the story of the past in this book. She comes to New York with big dreams of an art career. She attempts to make her way through the prejudices of the 1920s. What she finds is obstacles in all directions for a "woman" artist. What she also finds is the prejudice amongst painters and sculptors towards those who are "just" illustrators. However, she also finds the affection of friends and of men who would be more. Clara Darden disappears in 1931, never to be heard from again.

Virginia Clay is the story of the "present" - the 1970s. She comes to Grand Central Terminal out of necessity. Recently divorced and recovering from other more physical wounds, she needs a job. She gets a position working in the information both of the terminal. Her days consists of helping with train schedules and any other questions visitors to the station may have. Much to her surprise, she too finds friends. She also discovers that there are those who would destroy this iconic building in the name of money and progress. In her explorations, she also stumbles onto the the now abandoned art school space and a mysterious unsigned piece of original art. So starts her foray into the past.

The book tells the stories of these two women and these two time periods in alternating chapters. As the book progresses, the stories wind closer and closer together, until they finally intersect. I did guess correctly what that meeting point was going to be so it is not a surprise when it finally comes. However, the unexpected turns in the journey to get there makes a great story.

Typically, in books set in two time periods, I find one more interesting than the other. In this book, I find that interest balanced. Clara's and Virginia's stories are so different from each other, but the strength of both characters is what shines through. I find both engaging and find the ending to be a satisfying conclusion to both stories. I am now looking forward to what Fiona Davis writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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