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Review ❤️ The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

September 14, 2018

the masterpiece fiona davis

For the nearly nine million people who live in New York City, Grand Central Terminal is a crown jewel, a masterpiece of design. But for Clara Darden and Virginia Clay, it represents something quite different.

For Clara, the terminal is the stepping stone to her future, which she is certain will shine as the brightly as the constellations on the main concourse ceiling. It is 1928, and twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.” Brash, fiery, confident, and single-minded–even while juggling the affections of two men, a wealthy would-be poet and a brilliant experimental painter–Clara is determined to achieve every creative success. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they’ll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression, an insatiable monster with the power to destroy the entire art scene. And even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay’s life. Full of grime and danger, from the smoke-blackened ceiling to the pickpockets and drug dealers who roam the floor, Grand Central is at the center of a fierce lawsuit: Is the once-grand building a landmark to be preserved, or a cancer to be demolished? For Virginia, it is simply her last resort. Recently divorced, she has just accepted a job in the information booth in order to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. But when Virginia stumbles upon an abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, her eyes are opened to the elegance beneath the decay. She embarks on a quest to find the artist of the unsigned masterpiece–an impassioned chase that draws Virginia not only into the battle to save Grand Central but deep into the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.

Release Date: Aug 7, 2018
Publisher: Penguin Group
Imprint: Dutton
Price: $12.99


In 1928, Clara Darden is proud to be the only female faculty member at the Grand Central School of Art, but she has to fight to be taken seriously as an instructor and an artist. Clara specializes in illustrations for magazines, but she is more talented than most of the male artists on staff, which causes resentment. Clara is forced to take drastic measures to bring attention to her fabulous artwork, but then she disappears in 1931.

In 1974, newly divorced Virginia Clay gets a job at the Grand Central terminal building. Things don’t go as expected for Virginia, but on a terrible day at work, she is pleased to make an exciting discovery within the terminal building. She finds rooms that had been part of the art school and in one of the rooms, discovers a beautiful watercolor that could be valuable not only in terms of its price tag but also its place in the art world.

The Masterpiece alternates between Clara and Virginia’s point of view. It starts with Clara’s story to lay the groundwork for Virginia’s discovery years later and her experiences after finding the watercolor. Telling the story this way helps to build suspense about Clara’s life, but it means it takes longer to connect with either woman and to get to the more interesting parts of the story. Each woman is a product of their times and make some questionable decisions in their personal lives, and I don’t always like them. This also made it hard for me to get into the story. However, the pace picks up as the book continues. In the later chapters, both Clara and Virginia’s best qualities come out making them easier to relate to. It’s exciting to see all they ultimately accomplish.

Although what happened to Clara was unknown and there are questions about the watercolor, this isn’t a typical mystery. The set-up was there for more of a thriller, but it wasn’t that kind of book. The story starts slowly for me, however I’m glad I stuck with it. The payoff at the end was well worth the wait. I was surprised by the twist in the story and how it ended. I enjoyed the message of hopefulness and refusal to give up on something you believe in. I greatly enjoyed the author’s note at the end of the book giving the historical background about Grand Central Terminal and the Grand Central School of Art. I didn’t realize how much of the book was based on actual historical events. This made me appreciate the story more with the way fact was mixed with fiction and and raised my overall impression of the book.

~ Christine

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