Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review - The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

My Review

The Lions of Fifth Avenue is a historical novel set at the New York Public Library.  It tells the story of two women whose lives are changed by their time at the library.  In 1913, Laura Lyons lives in a mezzanine apartment at the library with her family.  Her husband works as the library's superintendent and she is pursuing a career in journalism, unusual for a woman in her time. When a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane goes missing, their lives are changed.  In 1992 Laura's granddaughter, Sadie Donovan, is working as curator at the library. Once again, several rare books go missing, and the search is on for the thief.

I wanted to read The Lions of Fifth Avenue because I enjoy Fiona Davis's writing and I absolutely adore books with a library setting.  I sell vintage books, so the antiquarian book storyline was especially appealing to me.

I absolutely loved this book and have been telling friends about it since I first started reading. The history of the New York Public Library is fascinating, from the early apartment cloistered in the building, to the methods of handling and cataloging books (and other historic, book related artifacts), to the curators' daily work. The details of antiquarian books at the library and their special markings and attributes was especially fascinating to me.

There are intriguing passages about the library like this:

"Sadie led the trio through the halls, pointing out all her favorite spots: the painted ceiling of a cloudy sky above the back stairwell, the Edward Laning murals depicting the history of the written word in the rotunda, and the view of the foyer from the second-floor balcony. Then down to the stacks where the library’s millions of volumes were housed. 

'If the shelves were laid end to end, they would measure over eighty miles,' she said.

Mrs. Smith let out a small 'Oh, my.'

'This particular branch of the New York Public Library is a research library, not a circulating one,' said Sadie. 'That means we don’t lend the books out, they must be consulted on-site. Furthermore, the stacks are not for browsing, they are closed off to the general public. Instead, a patron consults the card catalog and puts in a request, and then the book or books are sent to the Reading Room. The retrieval process hasn’t changed much in all the time the library has been open to the public, since 1911.' The stacks consisted of seven tiers that rose from the basement level to just below the Reading Room. They reminded Sadie of an ant colony, with library pages dashing up stairs and down the narrow aisles, locating one book among millions within minutes along the steel shelves. She pointed out the conveyer system that carried books up to the patrons waiting in the Reading Room, as well as the dumbwaiter used for oversized works." (Kindle location 337).

I found the lives of Laura, in 1913, and Sadie, in 1992, very compelling. They both struggle with pursuing work that they are passionate about. Laura wants to be a journalist and essayist at the point that few women pursue this career.  When she runs into an old college friend and attends the Heterodoxy Club in Greenwich Village (a group for women to express opinions on the vote, birth control, etc.), her conviction about her future changes.

Sadie longs to be curator of the library, but she has to fight for the position and really struggles in her early days on the interim job.

Both women also try to sort out their personal lives. Laura is married with two young children, but she wants more than the conventional life of wife to a powerful man.  Sadie is divorced and intends to stay single, until she meets the investigator working on the case of missing books at the library. I found Nick, the investigator, very intriguing -- he was much more complex and sophisticated than expected.  I loved the slow building romance between Sadie and Nick.

The two parallel cases of missing antiquarian books were utterly fascinating, and the mystery from 1913 wound into the 1992 timeline as well.  I found the search for the books, through old bookstores and covert dealers and collectors, so interesting to read about.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite reads from recent years, and will certainly be high on my book list for this year. I cannot recommend it highly enough for fans of historical fiction, libraries, antiquarian books, literary history, New York history, or just fans of a beautifully told, compelling story.

1 comment:

R's Rue said...

I want to read this.