From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
I often wonder how authors find inspiration for their novels. It is such an incredible skill to create a story from thin air. In the case of bestselling author Fiona Davis, she has made a successful career from reimagining stories surrounding iconic New York City buildings. In The Magnolia Palace she explores secrets, betrayal, and murder within the impressive Gilded Age mansion of Henry Clay Frick. The story is centered around the value of beauty, the eccentricities of wealth, a lost pink diamond, and a mysterious death.
An Artist’s Model on the Run
In 1919, artist’s model Lillian Carter’s life, and career, have collapsed. Her mother has died from the Spanish Flu, and she is under investigation for murder.
“Without her mother to smooth out life’s rough edges, Lillian had faltered, wallowing in her sadness in a way that Kitty would never have tolerated, which only made her sadder.” (7)
Rather than facing her problems, she runs. Lillian’s last hope is a letter from a Hollywood producer interested in her as an actress. If she could get to California, she is certain that her luck would change. When a case of mistaken identity works in her favor, she accepts a job at the Frick mansion as the personal assistant to Helen Frick, daughter of the industrialist. The job includes room and board, a perfect set up for someone on the lamb from the law.
A portrait of Henry Clay and Helen Frick, by Edmund Charles Tarbell (1910) Wikipedia Commons
The Lost Pink Magnolia Diamond
In 1966, aspiring fashion model Veronica Weber’s first big job for Vogue magazine is at the former Frick residence, now one of New York City’s most renowned art museums. Representing the museum is Joshua Lawrence, a young intern with hopes of becoming an art curator. He shares with Veronica some of the history of the Frick family and the story of the lost pink Magnolia diamond. Later, outspoken Veronica complains about the working conditions and is fired from the shoot. Forgotten and stranded in the museum during a snow storm, she wanders the rooms in search of help until she finds a hidden cache of papers from the past that appear to be for a scavenger hunt in the museum.
“The pages were covered in dust, and she sneezed twice. Sitting cross-legged, she gently fanned them to one side to shake off the residue. What a strange place for old papers. Maybe it was the instruction manual for the organ.” (65)
Joshua has also been forgotten by security and locked into the museum. When Veronica shows him what she has discovered, they join forces to unravel the cryptic clues. He hopes to uncover information about the Frick collection. She wants to find the valuable pink diamond for her struggling family.
A Dangerous Love Triangle
Back in 1919, Lillian has become an integral part of the fractured Frick domestic life. She has impressed Mr. Frick with her knowledge of his art collection, the management of his daughter’s affairs, and their complicated household. In ill health, he is compelled to see his daughter quickly married, offering Lillian a large sum of money if she can pull it off. This is her opportunity to travel in Hollywood in style and comfort and she accepts. The most promising prospect is Richard Danforth. Lillian is successful in playing Cyrano de Bergerac between Helen and Richard, until she falls for him herself. When Helen discovers this, Lillian’s safety and security are shattered. This event brings the Frick family troubles from the past, and present, to a the forefront.
“Even with all their money, the family had been afflicted by tragedy that reverberated down the generations. Martha’s death had made them all their worst selves: Mrs. Frick fragile and ill, Mr. Frick cruel, their son desperate to cause trouble, and Miss Helen far too eager to please.” (192}
The fallout from the crisis will reverberate through the decades until Veronica reveals her secret and discovers others hidden by the family.
A portrait of Lady Hamilton as Nature, by George Romney (1782) Frick Collection
The Value of Feminine Beauty
I was impressed with Fiona Davis’ depth of research and creative reimaging of real people and events surrounding the Frick mansion. During the scavenger hunt, the clues send us to different paintings and art objects within the museum. One of the portraits discussed is that of Lady Hamilton. Emma Hamilton was a renowned beauty, a frequent artists model, and the scandalous mistress of Lord Nelson. Using this portrait was a great tie-in to the characters in the book. The value of feminine beauty by male society is a strong theme in The Magnolia Palace. Both Lillian and Veronica are models appreciated for their physical appearance. While they are each considered ideal beauties of their generations, Davis also gives them flaws to make them realistic to the reader.
Immersive, Intriguing, & Fascinating
Throughout The Magnolia Palace I felt totally emersed in the era and engaged in the fictional lives of the characters. The interesting mystery thread started a bit late in the narrative for my taste, so I can only express my disappointment in the early pacing. The description of the art was fascinating and I enjoyed learning about the Frick family dynamics. Being immensely rich, does not buy you happiness!
If you enjoy atmospheric historical fiction resplendent with art, interesting characters, and a beguiling mystery, The Magnolia Palace is an intriguing addition to you winter reading lineup.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The Magnolia Palace: A Novel, by Fiona Davis
- Dutton Books (January 25, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (352) pages
- ISBN: 978-0593184011
- Genre: Historical Fiction
We received a review of the book copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Dutton Books © 2022; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
Have you read The Magnolia Palace or any other novels by Fiona Davis?
If you enjoy historical fiction exploring real people and places from the past, Austenprose highly recommends them.
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Laurel Ann Nattress, editor