The Immortalization Of New York City's Grand Central Terminal: The Masterpiece By Fiona Davis

If you've ever wanted to go to New York, this book is for you! Filled with gorgeous descriptions, strong female characters, and an emotional plot, The Masterpiece is like its name, a literary masterpiece worth reading.

I found The Masterpiece right after I had devoured The Lions of Fifth Avenue, also by Fiona Davis. I had decided that she was my new favorite author, and so I wanted to continue enjoying all of her other books, one by one. Just like The Lions of Fifth Avenue, I listened to the audiobook version. Typically I find my audiobooks for free via the Libby app, which you can use with your Boston Public Library card and account. 

Author Fiona Davis
Fiona Davis. image source: fairfieldcountylook

Fiona Davis is a New York Times bestselling author. Her other books include The Dollhouse, The Address, and The Lions of Fifth Avenue. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary in Virginia and the Columbia Journalism School and lives in New York City. 

What is The Masterpiece about?

The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis is a historical novel based in New York City. It follows two characters, Clara Darden and Virginia Clay. Clara's story starts in the 1920s, right before her career really kicks off, and Virginia's story is set in the 1970s, where she discovers a mysterious painting that is connected was originally done by Clara, but she signed it under a different name. 

From the back of the book The Masterpiece

In this captivating novel, New York Times bestselling author Fiona Davis takes readers into the glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.

For most New Yorkers, 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. It is 1928, and Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. Though not even the prestige of the school can override the public's disdain for a "woman artist," fiery Clara is single-minded in her quest to achieve every creative success—even while juggling the affections of two very different men. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they'll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression...and that even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.

By 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay's life. Dilapidated and dangerous, Grand Central is at the center of a fierce lawsuit: Is the once-grand building a landmark to be preserved, or 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, 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.

Characters in The Masterpiece

Clara Darden is such a determined character, but that doesn’t seem to be the case when you first meet her. And I say “meet” because it isn’t likely that you will feel like you are actually just reading the book, whether you listen to the audiobook version like I did, or not. You will instead visualize everything. The description of Clara and her art class, the feelings she feels, and the relationships she develops with two men, first Oliver, whose relationship with Clara was quite rocky, and then Levon, who to me seemed like the perfect match for Clara, and whose relationship with her, to my horror, ends in a devastating tragedy. 

What I really liked about Clara was that she had an up-and-down character evolution. She experienced a failure, then a success, then a failure, and another success. And throughout it, she kept going. She had her own father tell her there was no way she could be an artist, but as you continue reading the story, it is so clear that she just can’t help but be exactly that, and she is aware of that fact, even when she struggles to feel inspired sometimes.

Clara has a very direct attitude, however, when confronting the people who doubt her. When the director at the Grand Central art school lets her go, she is forced to find work elsewhere, but she never begs for her job back. She does develop a friendship with Levon when she asks him to convince the director to let her stay, but it doesn't end up working out. It seems that Clara was not meant to stay stuck in the art school, where it seemed like-initially at least, she had not been a well-liked instructor.

Through her time with Oliver, you can see that while she is doing well, something is up with her relationship with him. He is contradictory the one hand he wants to be a successful poet, and on the other, when she encourages him to step out of his comfort zone he doesn't like it very much. To make things worse, he very quickly turns into a jealous, unsupportive person, and doesn't hear Clara out when she tries to explain what happened with her and Levon on the beach. He simply ran off with some actress he'd met that very weekend.

Virginia Clay, it seems, has been pushed down and has stayed down. She is constantly working to maintain the life she had before everything went downhill, and throughout the story, she realizes that maybe that isn’t quite what she wants. Once she gets the job and Grand Central station she slowly changes, starts standing up straighter, voicing her opinion, going after mystery and adventure. Virginia has been through a lot, specifically with her marriage.

She had breast cancer and had to get one breast removed, and after that, her husband very much didn't take care of her and distanced himself while Virginia tried to be strong. Even during the story Virginia asks her ex-husband for legal help and her husband dismisses her, and it is quite sad that they couldn't have a relationship where they weren't married but they were friends and allies. 

She is such a brave character, and so is Clara. They are icons of feminism, and while they both have their flaws, I fell for them quickly.

Fiona Davis' Writing Style

I thought Clara’s plot was a little predictable, but Virginia’s plot was a bit more exciting. There was something about Clara that made her seem like an open book, whereas Virginia was quite mysterious and often I found myself unable to stop listening to the book because I just wanted to get to the end of her chapters. I think that the past and present differences were really well-done, because it's not just the characters you would see, it’s Grand Central. It went from the Grand Central Art School, where Clara taught for a while before being let go, to the present, run-down Grand Central, where Virginia managed the information booth. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Clara’s romance with a certain Levon! It was beautiful and genuine and they both encouraged each other to step out of their comfort zone. And I had fun experiencing that side of the story. I also enjoyed the fact that Virginia’s daughter Ruby seems to be Virginia’s best friend. Virginia and 19-year-old Ruby share a lot with each other, and it's just sweet. I also thought it was slightly amusing that Virginia had a particular brief relationship with a man named Dennis, who very much seemed to be a really icky character, and it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped it was so I was both amused and pleasantly surprised. 

Fiona Davis' comments on The Masterpiece

In an interview with blogger Deborah Kalb, Fiona credits her inspiration for The Masterpiece to a reader who had attended her author talk for her book The Dollhouse. The reader recommended that Davis should research Grand Central for her next book, and even offered to book a tour for Davis. 

Something else that Davis mentioned is that the research she did for the book involved studying floorplans at the architectural library at Columbia University and she also mentioned doing online research of the Terminal hotspots like the Campbell Apartment and the Oyster Bar. She also said that luckily there are a lot of books and documentaries that also helped with her research. 

Davis was asked was what the similarities and differences between her other historical books are because her other books are also about historical buildings in New York. Davis said that something similar was that all the buildings she has written about have gone through transformations. The difference however was that the Grand Central is a transport hub, whereas the New York Public Library used to have a living space where the characters from The Lions of Fifth Avenue lived, and the Barbizon Hotel for Women became a condo. 

Final thoughts on The Masterpiece

All in all, I would recommend this book to everyone, whether you are a reader who reads a lot of historical fiction, or if you're new to the genre. I would also say that if you enjoy a lot of detail in setting descriptions and an immersive character viewpoint, you should read this book specifically. 

That being said, I think that the format you choose would depend on you. Personally, I used to enjoy reading physical books, and I would've loved to purchase a hardcover version of the book. But since I started college in 2018, I really didn't have time or space in my bag to pack a physical book, and so I started listening to audiobooks. 

If you choose to listen to an audiobook, you can probably get it at your library, and if not, you could try to get it via Scribd. Scribd is an audiobook subscription service that costs $10.99 a month. Unlike Kindle, it does not give members a credit per month. Instead, it offers members an unlimited amount of audiobooks and e-books, and it often has newly released books available.

Menaka is a college student living in Boston. She hopes to continue writing after graduation, both creatively and on her blog, May-able.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.