Written by: Fiona Davis
Read by: Cassandra Campbell
11 Hours and 43 Minutes
PRHA Imprint: Penguin Audio
Genre: Fiction – Historical – General
Release Date: August 07, 2018
In her latest captivating novel, nationally bestselling author Fiona Davis takes readers into the glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.
For the nearly nine million people who live in New York City, 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, which she is certain will shine as the brightly as the constellations on the main concourse ceiling. It is 1928, and twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.” Brash, fiery, confident, and single-minded–even while juggling the affections of two men, a wealthy would-be poet and a brilliant experimental painter–Clara is determined to achieve every creative success. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they’ll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression, an insatiable monster with the power to destroy the entire art scene. And even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.
Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay’s life. Full of grime and danger, from the smoke-blackened ceiling to the pickpockets and drug dealers who roam the floor, 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 hidden under the dust, 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. http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/book/566481/the-masterpiece/
As a painter I was, of course, instantly attracted to this book, this split history story with a twist. As a woman who lived through the turbulent 1970s on the younger side of the scale, I was also interested in Virginia’s liberation as she moves from well-off lawyer’s wife to not very well-off divorcee in need of a job.
In 1974 I went to NYC, when and where the book begins, a couple of times; with a high school club, and to a Broadway show (A CHORUS LINE) with my mother and other women in our community. In the case of the latter I was shocked to find the city as crime-ridden as was reported in the media. It’s a sharp contrast to today where I almost feel safe walking though most of it. We upstate New Yorkers were, at the time, shocked and frightened by 42 Street’s transvestites scene, and trembled when we witnessed a window in a corner store shot out. But Virginia talks about it as something to be frightened of but which she is powerless to change.
I often have issues with split historical fiction but this one worked especially well. This one is designed to show what artists’ lives might have been like, and especially that of one particular woman, Clara Darden. In an interview on Leslie LIndsay’s website the author says “Clara Darden and [fellow teacher at the school] Levon Zakarian are indeed inspired by real-life faculty members from the Grand Central School of Art: Helen Dryden (an illustrator who did over 90 Vogue covers ) in the 1910s and 1920s) and Arshile Gorky (an abstract expressionist).” (in Who knew Grand Central Terminal had a defunct art school?) Some of Dryden’s work can be seen in the website of Washington University of St. Louis (here)
I was also taken by the interest in saving Grand Central Terminal since I have had a long interest in the preservation of landmarks. The plan to trash the facade and main waiting room of the building and replace it all with a sky scraper existed and the building was eventually saved by a Supreme Court ruling. (wikimedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Central_Terminal#Proposals_for_demolition_and_towers)
Fiona Davis obviously did a lot of research into the artistic techniques of the period, the history of New York City and so much more. Virginia has a medical issue she is terribly conscious about and one she keeps secret. I feel she’s ashamed of it, although it is certainly not anything to have shame about. The split in the book’s timelines show the changes in the status of women and juxtapose them against how women’s lives are today.
Cassandra Campbell shows great range in the story; even her accents are good. Her voice, and her narrations, don’t have any jarring features.
Although it moved a little slowly, I was quite interested in the story. It was relevant to several aspects of my own life. Even the discussion of the depression in the 1930s was linked to my life as my parents told me about it – a lot. There are at least two fantastic twists to the story.
While there is some sex, it’s pretty clean. The focus is on the lives of the two women and their evolution. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories focusing on the 20th century.
Note, I could not find a piece by Helen Dryden, the basis for Clara that was in the public domain. The Vogue cover is from 1922 though not by her. But the abstract painting is by the artist cited as the model for Levon, Arshile Gorky.