Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona DavisThe Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Dutton Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A Good Morning America Book Club Pick!
“A page-turner for booklovers everywhere! . . . A story of family ties, their lost dreams, and the redemption that comes from discovering truth.”—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife

In nationally bestselling author Fiona Davis's latest historical novel, a series of book thefts roils the iconic New York Public Library, leaving two generations of strong-willed women to pick up the pieces.
It's 1913, and on the surface, Laura Lyons couldn't ask for more out of life--her husband is the superintendent of the New York Public Library, allowing their family to live in an apartment within the grand building, and they are blessed with two children. But headstrong, passionate Laura wants more, and when she takes a leap of faith and applies to the Columbia Journalism School, her world is cracked wide open. As her studies take her all over the city, she finds herself drawn to Greenwich Village's new bohemia, where she discovers the Heterodoxy Club--a radical, all-female group in which women are encouraged to loudly share their opinions on suffrage, birth control, and women's rights. Soon, Laura finds herself questioning her traditional role as wife and mother. But when valuable books are stolen back at the library, threatening the home and institution she loves, she's forced to confront her shifting priorities head on . . . and may just lose everything in the process.
Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie Donovan struggles with the legacy of her grandmother, the famous essayist Laura Lyons, especially after she's wrangled her dream job as a curator at the New York Public Library. But the job quickly becomes a nightmare when rare manuscripts, notes, and books for the exhibit Sadie's running begin disappearing from the library's famous Berg Collection. Determined to save both the exhibit and her career, the typically risk-adverse Sadie teams up with a private security expert to uncover the culprit. However, things unexpectedly become personal when the investigation leads Sadie to some unwelcome truths about her own family heritage--truths that shed new light on the biggest tragedy in the library's history.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there really were apartments built into at least some of the branches of the New York Public Library, including the branch on 5th Avenue – the one with the lions. So the apartment that Laura Lyons and her family live in really did exist, and was occupied by the real-life family of the first Superintendent, John Fedeler, who had an interesting history but thankfully no stories of stolen books – not that THAT doesn’t happen in plenty of libraries in real life. As the source material the author lists at the end demonstrates all too clearly.

While NYPL’s iconic Schwarzman Building is nearly as much of a character in the story as Laura Lyons and her granddaughter Sadie Donovan, the heart of this timeslip story revolves around the ways that family legacies and family stories shape our lives for both good and ill.

The story runs on two parallel tracks, both wrapped around the enigma of a series of thefts of rare, collectible books from NYPL’s rare book collection. And the way that both series of thefts implicate the Lyons family, past and present, and call into question their honor, their honesty and their service to a beloved institution.

Laura Lyons story is both the most difficult, and the most dynamic, as she starts her story in 1913 as a traditional wife and mother, albeit with a rather unusual address, an apartment on the Mezzanine level of the 5th Avenue branch of NYPL. Her journey is the longest and the hardest, as she struggles to make her own place in a world that expects her to stand quietly and respectfully behind and not beside her husband, the first Superintendent of the grand, new, library building.

But Laura wants to be more than a wife and mother. She wants to be a full participant in the rapidly changing world around her, and even more, she wants to help lead those changes. In her quest to become a journalist, she steps out of her husband’s shadow and away from her traditional role to find her own voice and her own life.

The gap left by her frequent absences causes a rift in her family, a rift that leaves a crack through which her son falls – into the clutches of an unscrupulous young thief and conman. Someone who gives the boy the attention and direction that is missing from his own family. Leading to the destruction of her husband’s career and his legacy – but to the making of Laura’s own.

In parallel, we see her granddaughter Sadie Donovan in 1993, the new and temporary curator of the now-famous Berg Collection – a collection that includes a walking stick that once belonged to her grandmother, the famous, and occasionally infamous feminist essayist Laura Lyons. When Sadie’s new position is threatened by another series of thefts from the Berg Collection, thefts that strikingly parallel the events that destroyed her grandmother’s family, history repeats as the granddaughter is under exactly the same suspicion that her grandfather was so long ago – that she is the insider responsible for the thefts.

In her quest to exonerate herself by finding the thief, Sadie investigates the events of the past – a past that her mother refused to discuss – ever. But in that search Sadie finds the link between her now and Laura’s then, and a truth that gives her all the answers she never knew she needed.

Escape Rating A: I have to say that this story had me at library. The idea of living in a big library like NYPL is probably every booklover’s dream. So the story of Laura and her family being fortunate enough to live inside that iconic building would have captured me if the story had been all sweetness and light. Which it isn’t, and that’s what made it so good.

I also have to say at this point that I am a librarian, and have to say that the description of Sadie’s career and day-to-day working life rang a lot of bells for me. What she did, how she got there, how she felt were all very reminiscent of my own working life. I was a working librarian in 1993 just as Sadie was, and her experiences were similar enough to my own that she was easy to identify with.

On my third hand, there are parts of Laura’s story that feel like they are in dialog with yesterday’s book, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, in spite of the stories taking place on opposite sides of the Atlantic and nearly a century apart. Both Laura and Agatha were women who straddled the line between being traditional wives and mothers and wanting more for themselves and more from their partners. That so little had changed about traditional women’s roles and how much censure women received when they deviated from those roles makes the century that separates them seem much shorter than the 80 years that separates Laura from her granddaughter. Laura’s messages about women’s lives and women’s labor and women’s need for both true partners and real independence has resonance because there’s still so far to go. There was in 1993 and there still is today.

But the heart of this story is the secret. The secret of how to steal from the locked cages of the Berg Collection. It’s a secret that is discovered by one generation and taught to another. A secret that breaks Laura Lyons’ family. A secret that reaches down through the generations. A secret that taints the life of her daughter and very nearly ruins the life of her granddaughter, just as it did her husband’s life.

The investigation of that secret, an investigation that fails in the past but finally succeeds at the end is so simple that you’re surprised no one figured it out sooner – including the reader. It’s also complicated by the weight of the secrets and lies that accreted around it, and so devastating that it nearly claims another generation of victims.

Sadie doesn’t so much uncover the secret as stumble over it, but the way that her stumbling takes her through her family’s history is absolutely captivating every step of the way.

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