Book Review for “The Ghost of Madison Avenue” by Nancy Bilyeau.
Helen O’Neill, the only daughter of the Connelly family, has been a widow for some time, and now she lives with her older brothers. Thankfully, Helen isn’t a financial drain on her family because she has a profitable gift – she’s a master of restoration, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has been employing her for some time. But when Belle da Costa Greene, the woman in charge of the illustrious collection of artifacts belonging to the prominent financier J.P. Morgan hears of Helen’s talents, she hires her away from the Museum. This would be the start of a Cinderella story, if it wasn’t for the fact that Helen’s gift is also a touch on the supernatural side.
My regular readers know full well that I don’t usually read ghost stories, and I tend to shy away from anything paranormal, fantasy, and even magical realism. But I decided to buy this novella for a couple reasons. First, I’ve really enjoyed Bilyeau’s book “The Blue” and I’ll be reading her upcoming novel “Dreamland” very soon. Second, I’ve finished reading all the books I had that were published in 2019, and I’m savoring my first 2020 novel, so I figured I had time to take a quick break with something a little bit different. Lastly, as this is a novella, I knew it would be a quick(ish) read, so why not, right?
Well, I’m glad I read this, despite having to force myself to suspend my usual disbelief in ghosts. You see, sometimes there are stories that just require a bit of something unearthly, and this is certainly one of them. Of course, while Belle da Costa Greene and J.P. Morgan did exist, Helen O’Neill is a fictional character (although slightly based on Bilyeau’s own ancestors). In this way, Bilyeau could allow herself to give Helen these special powers and talents without compunction, and then slip them into the real lives of these two people. (By the way, Belle sounds like a fascinating woman, and I’d love to read a novel about her!)
Bilyeau doesn’t delve much into either of these historical figures, which I personally thought was a bit of a shame. I think, however, she avoided this in order to keep the story short, and she does develop Helen very roundly, together with several of her family members. I liked Helen, but I also felt a bit sorry for her; she’s more of a tragic figure than a hero here, and while that evokes sympathy, it doesn’t make her an empathetic character, which is a bit of a shame, but certainly no tragedy. More importantly, Bilyeau formed this shorter work perfectly, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re used to writing three times as long of a work.
Still, I did enjoy this novella overall, especially since Bilyeau has a way of developing an atmosphere that worked perfectly with this story line, and her writing style is very open and accessible. I also liked how Bilyeau carefully built up the tension here, even if the climax wasn’t quite as powerful (or scary) as it might have been (but I’m no expert in this genre, so I could be wrong here). All told, this is a very good novella, for a ghost story, and I think it deserves a healthy four out of five stars, mostly because… ghosts? Um, no… not really my thing. But if you’re a fan of this genre, you’ll probably really enjoy this very much, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to you!