The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis is a beautifully written novel about two women striving to make their mark on the world. This historical fiction novel is set in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City in both the ’20s and ’70s.
The story centers around Clara Darden and Virginia Clay. We find Clara in the year 1928 where she is teaching is at the Grand Central School of Art at the Grand Central Terminal. A talented illustrator, she has to overcome the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.” While she is determined to achieve every creative success, the Great Depression has other plans in mind. Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay’s life. Recently divorced, she has just accepted a job in the information booth at the Grand Central Terminal. But when Virginia stumbles upon an abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, she’s determined to find out who the artist is. For more about the synopsis, check out my preview here.
Life was quite different for women in the ’20s and then in the ’70s as compared to today. Anyone who wasn’t the traditional stay-at-home wife and mother were looked down upon and scorned. But for Clara, she’s not interested in being a “typical” woman. She has a creative streak that won’t be silenced no matter how much society wasn’t ready in the ’20s. Clara is brash, fiery, confident and single-minded and the only thing that can truly hold her back is unimaginable tragedy.
Virginia in the ’70s is newly divorced after being a stay-at-home wife and mother. She’s feeling at a loss partly because her marriage ended and her upper-class lifestyle is gone. But perhaps the bigger loss she feels is from her mastectomy, which makes her feel less of a woman. Still, though, she’s stronger than she knows and when she embarks on the journey to find out the artist behind the watercolor, she takes on so much more as well.
We read the story from the perspectives of both Clara and Virginia. I felt both characters were drawn out well and had unique, distinct voices. While they’re quite different, they have some similarities. They are complicated, flawed but intelligent and strong. Their stories eventually align in unexpected but very satisfying ways.
What an amazing setting to have the story take place in the Grand Central Terminal! One of my favorite aspects of reading historical fiction is learning about something new. For instance, I had no idea there used to be an art school at the terminal in the ’20s, so fascinating. Davis says in a Q&A on her website that two characters in The Masterpiece are inspired by artists who were on the faculty of the Grand Central School of Art.
According to Davis: Arshile Gorky was an abstract expressionist painter who led a large and ultimately tragic life, while illustrator Helen Dryden was considered the highest paid woman artist in the early 1930s before mysteriously disappearing. The duo provided a jumping off point to explore the role of women artists at that time, and capture an art world and a city in flux, caught between the heady Jazz Age and the depths of the Depression.
It was very interesting reading the differences of the terminal from the ’20s to the ’70s. In the ’20s, it was a grand showcase with plenty of high-profile events. As opposed to the ’70s, where the terminal was covered in fifth and overrun with crime. But of course, many saw the beauty beneath the faded glory.
With regards to the ’70s, Davis says that the very existence of Grand Central was threatened.
She said: Developers went to court to reverse its landmark status so they could plop an enormous skyscraper on top. Support for preserving the building was tenuous, as the city was almost bankrupt, the terminal a faded glory. The fight to save the building, led by the inimitable Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who makes a brief appearance or two in the novel), informs the story of Virginia Clay, a former socialite fallen on hard times who’s forced to take a job in the information booth.
In addition, to the setting of Grand Central, the art community is also a huge focus, including vivid details of Clara painting. Davis really takes the reader behind the scenes of what it’s like to create art.
If you’re looking for a story about strong women that has a bit of a mystery, romance and historical context, The Masterpiece is a good choice.