1920s NYC art school inspires novel
‘Masterpiece’ reflects on how women were treated
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