Eight months since losing her mother in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, twenty-one-year-old Lillian Carter’s life has completely fallen apart. For the past six years, under the moniker Angelica, Lillian was one of the most sought-after artists’ models in New York City, with statues based on her figure gracing landmarks from the Plaza Hotel to the Brooklyn Bridge. But with her mother gone, a grieving Lillian is rudderless and desperate—the work has dried up and a looming scandal has left her entirely without a safe haven. So when she stumbles upon an employment opportunity at the Frick mansion—a building that, ironically, bears her own visage—Lillian jumps at the chance. But the longer she works as a private secretary to the imperious and demanding Helen Frick, the daughter and heiress of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, the more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family—pulling her into a tangled web of romantic trysts, stolen jewels, and family drama that runs so deep, the stakes just may be life or death.
Nearly fifty years later, mod English model Veronica Weber has her own chance to make her career—and with it, earn the money she needs to support her family back home—within the walls of the former Frick residence, now converted into one of New York City’s most impressive museums. But when she—along with a charming intern/budding art curator named Joshua—is dismissed from the Vogue shoot taking place at the Frick Collection, she chances upon a series of hidden messages in the museum: messages that will lead her and Joshua on a hunt that could not only solve Veronica’s financial woes, but could finally reveal the truth behind a decades-old murder in the infamous Frick family.
The Magnolia Palace (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (AbeBooks) (Audible.com)
Quite a few people recommended I try a Fiona Davis book or two because she writes the sort of historical fiction books that I like best: dual timelines, based on and researched of a person or place, with notes at the end telling just how much of the story is true or not. When there was a Kindle Deal for The Magnolia Palace a while back, I grabbed it and finally got around to reading it. I was not disappointed.
I knew a bit about Henry Clay Frick, the right-hand man to Andrew Carnegie and eventual successor when Carnegie sold his business. He was a pretty ruthless man who treated his employees terribly, as most of the Gilded Age capitalists were. When workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions, he sent thugs to rough up the striking workers; I believe that there were some deaths involved. While his workers were barely scraping by, Frick grew very wealthy and built a palatial estate on Fifth Avenue in New York, filling it with great works of art, the setting of this book.
The first timeline is 1919, when a young model is wrongfully accused in the death of her landlady. Barely scraping by since the death of her mother from the Spanish Flu, Lillian finds herself at the Frick mansion, finagling a job as a private secretary to the Frick collection. The other timeline is 1966, with model Veronica working on a photo shoot at the Frick mansion, which is now a museum. Not only do we get invested in both young women’s survival in the big city, there’s a decades-old mystery to solve involving an infamous murder in the Frick family’s past.
As is the case with a Davis book, I have found out, is that the Frick building is a character in and of itself in the story. Because it features in both timelines, details from Lillian’s 1919 world transcend to 1966 when Veronica picks up on some of those same details. I think, in another life, I was an architect, because I love reading and looking at old buildings. The writing style of the author is perfect for my interests.
I liked both timelines but appreciated Lillian’s more. Veronica’s fell a little flat for me, but not enough to think that this was a bad book. It was still compelling, and the solving a mystery in a historical setting was a bonus. I’ll definitely be visiting more Fiona Davis books in my future.
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