Dual timeline novel set in Grand Central Terminal
- Book: The Masterpiece
- Location: Manhattan
- Author: Fiona Davis
At the heart of this novel is Grand Central Terminal, New York, the Beaux Arts building erected in 1913, with its whispering gallery and imposing architecture. Note: don’t make the rookie mistake of calling it Grand Central Station, it is a Terminal because no trains pass through, the tracks end here (I learned that from the novel!).
Also important to the story is the Grand Central School of Art, 7,000 square feet on the 7th floor in the East Wing, established in 1923 by several artists including John Singer Sargent. The school closed in 1944. The School of Art forms one of the links between the two storylines set in 1928-30 (the story of Clara Darden) and 1974 (the story of Virginia Clay).
A further link is a painting entitled Siren, upon which Virginia Clay stumbles whilst working in the information centre in the station. After her divorce, she is on her uppers, and desperate for any job and thus she joins Totto and the team doling out information to all and sundry. She is a strong woman, guarding a personal secret, who will not be deterred from finding out more about her discovered artwork. How does it link to an auction house sale coming up shortly?
She also begins to see the Terminal for what it is, a beautiful building that has hit hard times and when she discovers the lengths that some will go to in order to replace the building with a skyscraper, she has to get involved in saving the building (and, yes, the well-known Whispering Gallery gets a look-in!). Even Jackie O features briefly!
Back in the late 1920s Clara is asserting her prowess as a female artist (well, illustrator in actual fact), running classes at The Grand Central School of Art. She finds her muse, Oliver, who supports her rise through the echelons of the art world, although stymied often simply because she is a woman. The art school director Mr Lorette seems undecided about her and her close connection to her fellow teacher Levon Zakarian, a mercurial man, steers her into new and uncharted territories.
For both women, managing their, at times, poverty-stricken circumstances is a binding theme. Their interest in art and art for art’s sake is clearly an issue that the author wishes to highlight. In fact, there are copious themes that zig-zag through the storyline making it feel quite busy and breathless at times.
The story does bowl along at a good rate, the writing is very competent and readable, but for me there are too many coincidences employed to push the story forward.
At times the story feels as though it might be getting quite insightful, but it never really takes the plunge, and rushes off in another direction; it stays on a more simplistic plane, tantalisingly teetering as it promises to deliver more. By simplistic I mean: two characters have to re-enter their apartment, where there has been a fire (serious enough to be extinguished by fire fighters) and the aftermath is glossed over (devastating I would have thought to the characters involved). The observation is then made that the apartment is now smelling like the inside of an ashtray. Anyone who has come across charred remains wouldn’t offer such a vacuous description, the smell is acrid, pungent and once smelled never forgotten. Descriptions like this seem to be the casualty of the colourful and enthusiastic storytelling style.
The author, however, does a great job on setting, more than 5*. She captures the feel and impending doom of The Wall Street Crash in 1929, and then the squalor and dirt of Grand Central, populated by ne’er do wells, in the mid 1970s – New York at that time was well down on its heel, rough and a pretty unsavoury place in many quarters.
The author gets her characters to visit Bemelmans Bar, at the Carlyle Hotel. Ludwig Bemelmans was a famous artist, whose work appeared in The New Yorker and he is remembered for his illustration in the Madeline books. He and his family lived at the hotel in return for painting the murals (very much a theme echoed in this novel). Barbetta, oftentimes frequented by high society, also gets a look-in and of course the “New York Institution“, the famous Oyster Bar in Grand Central, is a favoured place for the characters to meet up.
So, overall a wonderful novel for literary wanderlust but a storyline that has too many components vying for the reader’s attention.