Historical Fiction is my absolute favorite genre, so when Netgalley and Dutton Books reached out to me offering to share an Advanced Reader Copy of Fiona Davis’ brand new novel, The Magnolia Palace, I jumped at the chance. As much as I enjoy reading backlist books, I’m always eager to read new releases by prominent historical fiction authors. This new novel is set in early 20th century New York, among the mansions of New York’s elite. And the story that unfolds is one for the art history books!
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It’s 1919 in New York, and Lillian is alone for the first time in her life after losing her mother to the Spanish Flu epidemic. As the artist’s model, Angelica, her face and body are her livelihoods, but without her mother to protect her interests and secure her work, she’s struggling to pay the rent. By industry standards, her beauty is starting to wane, even more reason to head to Hollywood. But when her landlord’s wife is murdered, Lillian is implicated in the murder. She’s left with no choice but to run! And after one night in Central Park, she stumbles into an opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to be private secretary to Ms. Helen Frick, eccentric daughter of one of the richest men in America.
Her first few days in the Frick mansion are fraught with fear and frustration. She’s never worked outside an artist’s studio, and her limited experience is apparent to her new mistress. Luckily, Lillian’s expansive knowledge of fine art catches the attention of Mr. Frick, an avid art collector. Over time, she becomes more proficient in day-to-day duties, eventually becoming a trusted member of the Frick household.
To demonstrate his trust in Lillian, Mr. Frick enrolls her in a plan to help secure a husband for Ms. Helen in exchange for enough money for Lillian to start over in Hollywood. She’s not forgotten her ambition to become a movie star. Mr. Frick’s generous offer could make that a reality. So, she agrees to play matchmaker. Little does she know, matchmaking would be more than she bargained for.
Though she’s sure the family isn’t aware of her sordid background, she’s forever fearful that they’ll discover the truth. She goes to great lengths to protect the family and, thus, her job. But when she puts her trust in the wrong person, her truth is revealed with disastrous results. Now she’s implicated in another murder and the theft of a priceless heirloom. Once again, she’s faced with the choice to flee or to stand her ground.
Years later, a young model and a museum intern discover the truth about what happened to the Frick family and the missing heirloom. Locked in the Frick Museum over the weekend during a terrible snowstorm, the two will follow the clues that lead them right to Ms. Helen and the truth. Can they clear Lillian’s name? And, more importantly, will Ms. Helen be able to see past her prejudices and embrace the truth?
Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and The Magnolia Palace has all the makings of great historical fiction in my opinion. Davis shares in the author’s note her inspiration for the book which was based on the magnificent Frick Museum, its collection, and the eccentric family who founded it. If you’ve not been there, I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in New York. The art collection is superb, and the home itself is a work of art. An afternoon at the Frick is like stepping back into early 20th century New York.
Back to the book: I really loved how Davis incorporated the artwork and art history into the story, elevating Lillian’s character. She’s not just a pretty face as we learn throughout the novel. The relationship between Lillian and Ms. Helen evolves throughout the story, and, in the end, is the highlight of the book.
The juxtaposition of the fatherless Lillian and the sheltered Ms. Helen is glaring at times. Though we meet Lillian when she’s down and out, we quickly learn that she is fiercely independent and resourceful. The reader can easily believe that Lillian will make a way for herself no matter what obstacles she encounters. In contrast, Ms. Helen is completely dependent on her father, having never really matured beyond the need for his approval. Everything she does is to please her father, even if it means sacrificing her heart’s desire. These two women could not be more different, which makes their affection for each other even more endearing.
The dual timeline worked well for this novel; the shifts in time were well-timed, leaving me intrigued about one timeline while diving back into another. While the modern storyline was a bit far-fetched, it was entertaining and certainly added to the suspense of the novel. The moral dilemma faced in both stories certainly made me think about what I would do in those circumstances, rather than immediately jumping to conclusions about the characters.
Overall, The Magnolia Palace is a great example of what historical fiction can do. It breathed new life into historical characters and shone a light on one of the most important cultural landmarks in modern New York. The mystery, betrayal, and heartbreak gave the story dimension and distracted from some of the weaker areas of the plot. I highly recommend this book for any historical fiction lover, particularly if you enjoy art and art history. I’m sure you’ll be planning a trip to New York in no time! Thank you Netgalley and Dutton Books for this e-Arc in exchange for my honest opinion.