This is an excellent book for book clubs, and if I hadn’t already earned a reputation of recommending only novels to mine, I would do so. Kelly published Lost Roses as a prequel to The Lilac Girls, set in WWII (reviewed earlier on PWR). This 2019 publication is set just as WWI threatens in 1914. It is a historical novel which features the Russian Revolution and deals with women’s friendships.
Eliza Ferriday, an American, is a friend of Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Ramanovs in Russia. The novel deals with the rise and fall of that dynasty . As Austria declares war on Serbia, Eliza returns to America, never dreaming her dear friend Sofya and her family will soon be trapped on their country estate. As the Russian Revolution breaks out, and the peasants take things into their own hands, Sofya hires Varinka, a fortune-teller’s daughter to be a nanny to her toddler son, Max. The intersecting of the lives of these three women is what propels the plot forward, creating memorable characters as the author spins her remarkable tale. Each chapter is headed by one of the three characters’ names and by the year, which keeps things orderly and at the same time presents what is going on simultaneously in those women’s lives.
This is definitely a “find” and a darned good read.
I believe Davis’s third novel, The Masterpiece, published last year, is her best yet. It deals with the “glamorous” Art School, built above Grand Central Terminal (not Grand Central Station; this is not a station where the trains pass by, but an end-of-the-line, stopping point from which trains begin their next “run.” ) The descriptions of the glamorous high-end NYC society types kept this “New York-o-phile” turning pages.
As is her norm, thus far, Davis juggles two stories at once. One is the 1928 struggles and successes of Clara Darden, the first female instructor at the art school, teaching Illustration Techniques as featured in catalogs, newspaper and magazine ads of the day. Considered “not REAL art” by Clara’s colleagues, her illustrations lead to popularity, a whirlwind courtship, acceptance into high society, and eventually to her unexplained disappearance in 1931. Many theories have surfaced over the years, but the author’s imagined solution to the “mystery” of Darden’s disappearance is awesomely creative. I could never have come up with such an imaginative scenario. My kudos to the author.
Virginia Clay, employed by the Terminal in 1974 discovers a sketch with a painting on the back and becomes Darden’s fascinated fan. She also discovers that the dangerous and dilapidated structure has a lawsuit pending to save the historic structure from destruction. Recently divorced and hiding her shameful “secret” mastectomy, Virginia and Ruby, her college-age daughter, face struggle after struggle with no help from anyone. However, they have their own determination to overcome. Here, Ruby is her mother’s daughter. While carrying out an errand, Virginia stumbles upon the deserted art school, setting off her curiosity and an urge to research the terminal’s rich history. Here is where Davis shines–her meticulous research, her detailed (but never boring) descriptions which often yield a clue or further the plot, keep the reader enthralled as they envision the faded glory and splendor of the old landmark.
I enjoyed reading this novel more than any other novel I’ve read so far in 2019. I can hardly wait to read Fiona Davis’ Chelsea Girls, due out this summer.
“He rode the awkward steam-cycle along the ridge to catch glimpses of the domes and spires of Paris to the east, then turned west and careened headlong down the long steep hill toward the village of Bougival and the Seine. With his right elbow cast in plaster, he could barely reach the handlebar, but he had to get to the river. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Now. Idleness had been itching him worse than the maddening tickle under the cast. Only painting would be absorbing enough to relieve them both. Steam hissed out of the engine, but it built up inside of him.”
This is our first glimpse of Auguste Renoir, wobbling and sliding down an embankment on a steam-cycle, presented by historical novelist, Susan Vreeland. How Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party came to be, changed the school if Impressionism, epitomized by Renoir. This hefty 434-page novel was selected by our Third Tuesday Book Club only because one of our two male members mentioned he had read all of his friend’s historical novels when he knew her years ago in California. None of us had ever heard of her. My understanding of historical novels is that they are about real people, about real events, set in real places, then the author imagines what these people think, say, and do. A good historical novel, for me, cannot include too many facts or be too researched. Looking at the painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, even a novice art critic/appreciator can tell the difficulties presented in painting it: Many people, light issues, representing movement, and showing France, La Vie Moderne. Reading this book is not a mental action, but an experience. Vreeland shares the passion of the artist, the drive to paint and create, and the lighthearted conversation and enjoyment of the moment and the age–all captured by slashing, hurried brush strokes over several sessions. Vreeland captures the Jois de Vie of the moment and of the times.
I enjoyed this book so much that I am going to make reading all of Susan Vreeland’s books a goal to finish by New Year’s Day, 2021. I think there are seven, and all are about artists and paintings. At our club meeting last Tuesday, the assignment was to read any Susan Vreeland. I heard about three of them besides Luncheon, and immediately thought, I’ve got to read that one!