January Book Review – The Masterpiece

Jan 8, 2019

An iconic train station and the 1920s New York art world form the backdrop to the intriguing historical novel, The Masterpiece.

In the 1920’s, Manhattan’s Grand Central Station was more than a train station. It was one of New York’s elegant architectural showpieces, with cathedral ceilings, carved wood, big glass windows, grand meeting halls, and even a prestigious art school.  It was bustling with visitors and commuters.   By the 1970s, though still functioning as a travel hub, Grand Central had met hard times.  The building never recovered from the neglect of the Great Depression and the World War II economy, and became rundown and seedy.  Developers slated it for demolition, planning a new high rise above the underground tracks.  A fight for historic preservation saved Grand Central, landmark status was granted in 1978, and refurbishment was finally completed in 1998. 

So is the setting for Fiona Davis’ recent work of historical fiction, The Masterpiece. The story alternates between two women whose lives are changed by Grand Central Station, 50 years apart.

Clara Darden was a young artist in the 1920s, a fashion magazine illustrator and painter.  Through hard work and determination, she became the first woman instructor at the Grand Central School of Art.  Talented and temperamental, she succeeded in the blossoming art world of the era.  Then Clara mysteriously disappeared in 1931.

Virginia Clay was a divorced mother and cancer survivor in the 1970s. She was struggling financially, and landed a job in the frenetic information booth at Grand Central Station.  Virginia became intrigued by the history of the station, the abandoned art school upstairs, what became of the artist Clara Darden and an enigmatic painting left behind.  Intent on uncovering the truth and seeking justice for both the 1920s artist and the threatened building, Virginia’s inquiries took her into a world of mystery.  The reader is held in suspense, knowing some, though not all, of what Virginia will uncover.

The Masterpiece gives us two intelligent, resilient women characters, who though separated by more than a generation, become connected in a surprising way. Various themes are developed, such as the blind alleys in relationships, power, trust, women’s struggles for equality in the art world and the workplace, poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression, and infrequenty discussed aspects of cancer survivorship.

The Masterpiece, by Fiona Davis, is available from the Park City Library.