Book Review for “The Magnolia Palace” by Fiona Davis.
Summary: “Two savvy women separated by 50 years ponder the same curious questions in Fiona Davis’ richly detailed historical mystery. In 1919, down-on-her-luck model Lillian Carter gets a job as a private secretary for demanding socialite Helen Frick. Working in Helen’s Upper East Side mansion proves challenging, especially when the wealthy woman’s priceless diamond goes missing. Fifty years later, when Swinging ‘60s fashion model Veronica Weber ends up locked in that same mansion-turned-museum with its handsome young curator, she uncovers clues about the missing jewel…and a possible murder. With her customary lush prose, historical-fiction queen Fiona Davis immerses us in the over-the-top glamour of Art Deco New York.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical, USA – New York; Other Categories: Novel, Architectural, Women, Biographical, Dual-Timeline, Murder, Mystery.
There are two things that I must say of Davis’ novels (well, that apply to both of the two I’ve read so far, that is). One is that she knows how to pull off a dual-timeline without it feeling like it was shoehorned into the story. The other is that she has the ability to make the place she’s writing about into a protagonist, which is pretty amazing, if you ask me. (Yes, I know, I really do have to get around to reading her back list.) Now, not being a New Yorker myself, while I had heard of the Frick Collection, I’ve never been there on my few visits to that city. Davis’ newest novel has convinced me that I really should put it on my itinerary, that is, if I ever get back there again! That, of course, should be enough of a recommendation for this book (remember, as a Chicagoan, I actually dislike New York), but let me expand on this for you all.
Although not the most well-known of sub-genres in literary fiction, architectural fiction does exist, and in it, author Fiona Davis has found her groove. This is obviously one of the things that drew me to her books in the first place – a novel centered around a building or structure. Yes, there is a bit of romance in her books, but thankfully, those plot lines are very minor ones, and we get much more about the people and the building than we do about any love interests. Of course, one could say that Davis has an ongoing love affair with the history of iconic buildings in New York, but that’s probably the reason she writes these books, so we can’t blame her for this. That she’s able to invent stories that involve these places is only to her credit.
Before I go on, I should say that the single drawback I found in this book was the ending. It seemed to me that this one went on a tiny bit longer than needed, and I would have been happy if Davis had concluded this book without the last two chapters. I do have to admit that they weren’t overly extraneous, but my regular readers know that I do prefer a book that lets me wonder – at least a little bit – about what happened to the characters after the last page; I’m not terribly enamored with everything being tied up in neat bows. Still, I don’t think it had too much of an impact on the overall story, so it was hardly a deal-breaker. I should also say that while I enjoyed and was sympathetic to all the characters Davis gave us, there wasn’t anything here that pulled on my heartstrings for any one of them (which is the main reason why I can’t give this a full 5/5 stars).
All that said, Davis shows a really excellent talent for developing a good mystery, and uses the dual-timeline to help build the tension (where too often that mechanic can detract from a story). I must admit that I couldn’t figure out “who done it” until it was finally revealed, and although one of my guesses turned out to be correct in the end, I wasn’t totally right, plus I also doubted myself until all the facts came to light. Furthermore, I admire how Davis brings in just the right number of characters – not too many, not too few – to make sure that both the focus is on the right protagonists, as well as have enough suspects for the mystery, without confusing the reader. Finally, Davis’ writing style is clear and straightforward, that settles into slightly poetic when she describes the building and the many pieces of art that it houses.
Look, I think it should be obvious by now that I truly enjoyed this book. There is very little here that anyone can discount, and I can see that the hype about this book was swirling around for quite some time. Well, I’m happy to say that it does live up to the hype. Mind you, I’m afraid it stopped just short of giving me a really emotional punch, but that doesn’t mean I can’t rate it highly. This is a novel that won’t disappoint Davis’ fans, and I can very warmly recommend it with a truly deserving four and a half stars out of five.
Dutton Books (Penguin Publishing Group) released “The Magnolia Palace” by Fiona Davis on January 25, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.