Book Review: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

In her signature style, Fiona Davis reaches into the past to find a part of New York history and uses it as the scaffolding for an impressively imagined work of fiction. The Masterpiece weaves together the stories of two women, Clara and Virginia, across decades and centered around one famous piece of architecture, Grand Central Terminal, and all the history within. Our story begins in 1928, a mere two years before The Great Depression when people were still able to feed their hobbies and their innate desire for art. Enter Clara Darden, one of the few female illustrators and art teachers at the Grand Central School of Art—a little known and secluded art hamlet hidden in the upper levels of the terminal itself.

The first time she did enter the hallowed space, stepping off the train from Arizona last September, she stopped and stared, her mouth open, until a man brushed past he, swearing under his breath at her inertia. The vastness of the main concourse, where sunshine beamed through the giant windows and bronze chandeliers glowed, left her gobsmacked. With its exhilarating mix of light, air and movement, the terminal was a perfect location for a school of art.
However much Clara loves her role as an art instructor what she truly dreams of is a chance to illustrate the covers of the top fashion magazines. But her humble past and the obvious fact that she is a women hinder her success. Clara is cunning and unafraid of opportunity so when circumstances lead to the opening of doors, she takes full advantage—disregarding the hearts of current and former lovers and friends along the way. When tragedy strikes Clara is forced to reevaluate her priorities both in her personal life and as a working artist.
Fast-forward nearly 50 years and Grand Central Terminal is still standing, though in a much different light; decrepit and all but abandoned to drug-addicts and criminals it is mere months away from condemnation and demolition. When Virginia is offered a temporary job at the station’s information desk, she is weary to say the least, but financial hardship and the welfare of her daughter force her hand. Wandering around the upper levels of the station one afternoon, Virginia manages to stumble upon the boarded up old art school, though she doesn’t know yet what it is, preserved aside from a thick layer of dust.

She checked each room, counting five studios in total, amazed at her find: a mummified art school at the top of Grand Central. The last room was some kind of storage area, filled with wooden crates stacked haphazardly on top of one another. The crate closest to her had been opened; a crowbar lay on the floor nearby. Inside, Virginia discovered course catalogs, accounting letters, and notebooks filled with names of students and tuition figures. A winter catalog from 1928 offered a snapshot of life right before the Depression, when a portrait painting class cost fourteen dollars a month.

Shuffling among the antique clutter, Virginia manages to find a canvas painting depicting a moving scene that stirs something within Virginia and motivates her to look deeper into the history of Grand Central. What she uncovers slowly unfurls as we travel back and forth between her story and Clara’s past until both narratives come together in a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Dutton Books

 

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