The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: August 7, 2018
I only really got into historical fiction over the course of this past year, and I’ve tended to be particularly drawn to stories focusing around art (B.A. Shapiro was my first introduction through The Art Forger, and more recently, The Collector’s Apprentice). I can’t remember how I heard about Fiona Davis’s new novel, I haven’t read any of her previous work, but the storyline, blurbed (is that a verb? Can I make it one?) as: a novel that “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,” definitely caught my eye.
Indeed, The Masterpiece takes the reader through the life of Clara Darden, an art teacher and aspiring artist, in the late 1920s and into the Great Depression, and Virgina Clay, a recently divorced mother of one, who is struggling to make ends meet in the 1970s. The common thread that runs throughout both stories is, as indicated above, Grand Central Terminal. In Clara’s time, the station is a piece of art in and of itself, and an exciting and bustling hub within the city. In it, lies her beloved Art School, at which she is the only female teacher, sharing her love of watercolor and illustration with the attending students. Her story explores her struggle to be taken seriously as a female artist, and highlights her successes as an illustrator for Vogue, and an interior designer for Dictator cars. Davis does not leave out the personal aspects of Clara’s life. Alongside her growing career, Clara meets Levon, a bull-headed and overly confident artist who seems a bit brusque and closed minded at times, but ultimately steals Clara’s heart, and Oliver, an aspiring poet born into wealth who makes Clara his muse, and introduces her to high society in a manner she never would have achieved on her own, fanning the flames of her success.
The Grand Central terminal Virginia experiences, fifty years after Clara worked there, is quite different. It is dirty and unsafe, and is teetering on the edge of losing its landmark status, leaving it susceptible to being torn down. As a new divorcee trying to support herself and her teenage daughter Ruby, Virginia initially tries to fake her way into a legal assistant position, before settling as a worker at the information booth in the middle of the terminal. Virginia’s character definitely grew on me as the story progressed. Having previously survived a battle with breast cancer, Virginia is the epitome of a fighter. Although initially dubious about her new role in a changing New York City, Virginia embraces her ability to work and to treat her relationships with men in a more laissez-faire manner than she was previously comfortable with. In fact, it’s during a tryst with the lawyer she nearly worked for, Dennis (who turns out to be a disgusting pig, but alas, such is life) when she stumbles upon the lost Art School above the terminal, and a piece of Clara Darden’s work that she instantly falls in love with. This discovery becomes the catalyst for Virginia’s hunt to discover not only what happened to Clara Darden, but also how her art may relate to the work of Levon.
Virginia and Clara both embrace their independence and femininity in hugely admirable ways. I loved what each character ended up representing in this regard. It also struck me that neither ended up with a man. Instead, the women struggled with their share of flawed men and heartbreak. Fiona Davis knows how to paint (no pun intended) and maintain strong female characters even in the face of hardship.
I wasn’t totally sold on the ending of this book (hence the missing half cookie in my rating). The fact that Clara was still alive let alone in New York City during Virginia’s time never ever occurred to me, and her character, known in the ‘70s as Totto, honestly didn’t seem important enough to me to give much notice to. Maybe that was the point, but it felt a little random to me, like a convenient, yet not fully planned way to end the story. Despite the slightly underwhelming final chapters, I absolutely plan to seek out Fiona Davis’s previous novels once I make a bit more of a dent in my current TBR list.
As new as historical fiction is to me, pie baking is even newer. This was one of, if not, the first pies I have ever made. I opted for pecan, and, very uncreatively utilized the recipe on the back of the Karo corn syrup bottle. That being said, the crust is made from scratch, with lots of help from a friend, and the use her family recipe, which I didn’t have the foresight to write down. The fancy edges were created by cutting slits all along the overhanging crust that extended past the pan’s edge, and folding in every other resulting tab. The additional two minutes of work led to a resulting pie that I might even dare to call a Masterpiece.