April Book Review: The Magnolia Palace

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MMC Book Club logo on pale blue with "Book Review" in text

It’s 1919 in New York City. Picture it: the Spanish flu has wreaked havoc in many lives. World War I has ended, but unrest and violence still plague the world. The 19th Amendment has been sent for ratification, but women are still not given the same rights as men (and we still aren’t…but that’s a topic for another day).

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis is a story of women struggling to get by and to live in the glamorous world of Frick family.

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona DavisWe meet Lillian, a young woman who is struggling to get by after her mother’s death. She is a model for artists; she poses for sculptures under the name of Angelica and is the face of artwork scattered throughout the city. Her work is seen as indecent though, as she is often in various stages of nudity for her poses. Despite the hypocrisy of the wealthy owning the artwork, the modeling is still a scandalous affair.

After a misunderstanding involving her landlord and the murder of his wife, Lillian flees her apartment and wanders the streets, sleeping outdoors and pondering a way to make it to Hollywood. She is convinced that an audition with a legendary director can solve all her problems. In another misunderstanding, she finds herself ushered into a mansion and interviewing for a position in the household. She becomes the private secretary to Helen Frick, the daughter and heiress of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick.

No one recognizes her legendary face, and she proves herself invaluable to Helen.

She can handle all the eccentricities and tedious tasks of her employer, even a difficult one set out by Mr. Frick. But Lillian soon finds herself in trouble again as her past comes back to haunt her and tragedy strikes the Frick family.

Interspersed in Lillian’s story, we also meet Veronica Weber.

She is an English model in 1962 who has traveled to New York City for a shoot with a famous photographer. Veronica has a twin sister who is living in an assisted living facility, as she and her mother cannot afford to hire full time help after the death of her father. Modeling will be her ticket to success and money, and this job is very important.

The shoot is taking place at the Frick mansion, which has been preserved as an art museum. While there, Veronica is appalled at the photographer’s arrogance and lack of empathy for the models. She argues with him after he forces them to lay down in the freezing snow outside, and he kicks her out of the shoot.

Veronica wanders inside the mansion and stumbles upon a hidden corridor. She finds papers tucked behind organ pipes and is enraptured by the clues left in them. Before she realizes it, night has fallen and a snowstorm has covered the city. Everyone has left, and she is locked into the mansion without power. And she is not trapped alone; an intern and art curator named Joshua also lost track of time and found himself locked inside.

They decide to pass the time by following the clues, Veronica for entertainment and Joshua for historical purposes. While searching, they learn more about each other and about the Frick family. They also find clues that could lead to treasure…and the secret behind a murder in the Frick family and Lillian.

When our book club met to discuss The Magnolia Palace, we agreed that it was a good fictional story about a real place!

The Frick Collection stands in New York City. The real Henry Frick bequeathed all his art collection and house to the public. He wanted generations to be able to enjoy it, just like he did in the book. His daughter Helen established the Frick Art Reference Library in 1920 as a way to catalogue sculptures, paintings, and other works from artists. According to The Frick Collection website, “…Recognized as one of the world’s top art history research centers, it has served students, scholars, and members of the public free of charge for generations.”

We all thoroughly enjoyed this novel for its intrigue and parallels to true history and people.  And we always love a good historical fiction novel! To find out the mystery surrounding the family and how Lillian fared, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

Persuasion by Jane AustenThank you for reading with us! We are reading Persuasion by Jane Austen for May, and we would love to see you at our virtual meeting. Follow us on Facebook to RSVP for it!