1920s NYC art school in­spires novel

‘Mas­ter­piece’ re­flects on how women were treated

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Fiona Davis in “The Mas­ter­piece” (Dut­ton, 347 pp., ★★★g) con­tin­ues a win­ning for­mula that show­cases the sto­ries be­hind New York City land­marks, as in her best­selling “The Doll­house” (The Bar­bizon Ho­tel for Women) and “The Ad­dress” (The Dakota).

This time, it’s Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal and the school of art it housed in the 1920s.

Her hero­ines hark from dif­fer­ent eras: Il­lus­tra­tor Clara Dar­den is the only woman teach­ing at the art school in 1928. But her sta­tus there re­flects how women were treated then, and are, too of­ten, now. She patchIn es to­gether a liv­ing teach­ing by day and pro­duc­ing mag­a­zine il­lus­tra­tions at night. Dur­ing a fac­ulty art show she hopes will ex­pose her art to edi­tors at Vogue, her work is rel­e­gated to an outof-the-way of­fice.

A fel­low teacher and star of the school, the tem­pes­tu­ous but beloved Levon Zakar­ian, of­fers to show one of her paint­ings in his more prom­i­nent area, but the proud Dar­den chafes at the of­fer.

Still, it leads to a friend­ship that will be life-chang­ing for both Levon and Clara.

1974, di­vorcee Vir­ginia Clay stum­bles into the shut­tered art school while seek­ing a job at the ter­mi­nal to sup­port her and her daugh­ter. She winds up in the in­for­ma­tion booth and be­friends a lawyer who is work­ing to tear down the aging ter­mi­nal and re­place it with a sky­scraper.

On an af­ter-work assig­na­tion with that lawyer, Vir­ginia finds – and takes – a vivid wa­ter­color of a woman. Then the anony­mous threats be­gin.

Back in 1929, be­fore the Wall Street crash, Clara has be­come a sought-af­ter il­lus­tra­tor and in­dus­trial de­signer, thanks in part to the con­nec­tions she makes through her lover, Oliver, a wealthy poet. When Levon strug­gles, Clara of­fers him food and tough love. The De­pres­sion brings both artists to des­per­ate mea­sures.

Clara and Vir­ginia are fierce, vul­ner­a­ble and un­wa­ver­ing in their de­ter­mi­na­tion to right wrongs.

This zippy read can be a lit­tle too pat with its di­a­logue and res­o­lu­tions, but is a hard-to-re­sist and a timely re­minder that for far too long the work done by women has been dis­missed and dis­re­spected.

Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal and its 1920s art school is the set­ting for “The Mas­ter­piece.” CARUCHA L. MEUSE/GAN­NETT

Au­thor Fiona Davis

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