When I was a kid, I had fantasies of what life must be like to live inside a museum. What stories and secrets of art might I discover? In The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis textures such imaginings, setting her novel inside the Frick mansion and alternating between two storylines in 1919 and 1966.
The novel opens in a moment of loss: A famous model named Lillian Carter, who has posed for countless sculptures that adorn New York City landmarks, loses her mother to the Spanish flu in 1919. While Lillian is trying to navigate the complexities of the world, she finds herself caught in an imbroglio, and she runs from the scandal straight to the Frick family home. There she becomes the private secretary to Helen Frick, the challenging daughter of the man who would later transform his mansion into a museum.
Lillian’s story unfolds alongside that of Veronica Weber, a British model in the 1960s who, during a photo shoot at the Frick Collection, gets snowed in and finds herself on quite an adventure.
Within this home and museum, Davis builds a whole world that’s rife with secrets and stories. The novel moves at an engaging pace, with questions waiting to be answered at each turn. Davis knows exactly how to structure a story and how to switch between timelines; even if sometimes you aren’t quite ready to make the jump, you must, in order to find out how it all connects.
A captivating story whose characters are richly drawn, The Magnolia Palace pays particular attention to those who might go unnoticed: the deaf private secretary, the museum intern, the organ player. We discover their private lives and public exposures, which reveal the daily messiness of human lives, the construction of the self and the truths we try so hard to hide.