This book gave us an interesting look at Grand Central Terminal in New York City during two time periods–1928-1931 in its heyday with an in-depth view of the school of art that operated inside, and 1974 when the building’s integrity was under threat legally and physically.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting is integral to the story and comes alive, and where we learn something about the history, geography, and/or people of the state. Right now we are in New York.
My son watches a lot of YouTube videos, and I’ve become somewhat familiar with the term “click-bait,” which refers to a marketing hook in the title or description of the video that motivates potential viewers to click on the video. I bring this up because it’s how I’ve started to think about the publisher’s blurbs on the back of books or on Goodreads and other book sites.
I was a little disappointed with this book in that the blurb indicates that the 1970s section follows the battles over preservation of Grand Central Terminal and name-drops Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Yes, the struggle is there. Yes, we see Jackie–from a distance. Yes, the main character even provides a key bit of evidence that helps sway that battle. But that process takes place very much off stage. It’s not the main focus of the 1970s storyline.
“Once we shoot down the notion that the terminal is protected by landmark status, we’re going to put up a new skyscraper on this very spot. Fifty-five stories. It’s going to be massive. The city will give us a huge tax write-off for improving the district, and we’ll be making serious money from the rent. Much better than this old mausoleum.” He gestured around him. “They’d tear it down, like Penn Station?” A little less than ten years ago, she’d been as surprised as many others in the city to find that Penn Station, a glass jewel of a train hub, was to be demolished. The few voices raised in protest had made no difference. “The new building will rip through part of it, the side facing Forty-Second Street, and rest on top, like a hen sitting on its eggs.”
And the rest of that storyline is interesting–a breast cancer survivor and recent divorcee getting back on her feet, and trying to understand and help her daughter who’s suddenly dropping out of college. But it felt like the battle over Grand Central wasn’t that important to Virginia–despite her actions to obtain the evidence that helped win the battle. I would have liked more of what we got–briefly–when Virginia’s daughter photographed the Terminal, or the bits when Virginia was exploring the old art studios. At those times, Virginia feels entranced by the old building, its beauty and history, the glamorous apartments and the people who lived and worked there. Those were the highlights of the book.
She was no longer in the heart of New York City but in a thirteenth-century Florentine palazzo, the floor covered by a massive Persian rug. The painted wood ceiling soared a good twenty feet above her head, and everywhere were strange treasures: six-foot-tall vases, bronze sculptures, petrified tree trunks, and, up in a balcony, what appeared to be a pipe organ. “What on earth is this?” “It’s called the Campbell Apartment, but it’s an office.” “For someone who works for the railroad?” She imagined a Vanderbilt installed here, running the trains from this magnificent headquarters. “Not really. A financier who’s on the board of New York Central.
And a little later:
As Virginia waited for the elevator to the Penn Central offices, the metal grillwork above the doors caught her eyes. Like the filigree, the design was complicated and showy. A slew of wrought iron vines twisted around the floor indicator, and recessed in the marble trim immediately above was a leaf-and-acorn wreath in bronze. The terminal was like a giant gallery of hidden art; you just had to know where to look
I would have liked more of the historic section to have taken place in Grand Central–we get glimpses of parties and events, and early on we get views of the art classes, but we quickly move to the artists’ studios and spend a summer in Maine. Eventually we learn the truth of the mystery painting that Virginia uncovers, but, again, Virginia seems only peripherally interested in what she’s found–she seems torn between simply liking the artwork and wanting to know if she can make some money off of it.
I suppose the way it unfolded was very true to life. We find a nice painting, we might make a call or two, we evince a bit of interest, but really, there’s too much real life going on that we have to deal with–keeping a job, paying the bills, dealing with the insurance company, and an ex-husband, and a lover who may or may not be married, and… on and on, the day-to-day details overwhelm us. The magical moments–be they discovering a hidden art studio or photographing the details of a historic building or following the trail of an anonymous artist–are few and far between and happen much slower than in a novel. But… this is a novel. And I expected a bit more magic.
There’s some great history here of Grand Central Terminal (including the point that it’s a Terminal not a Station), and that made it a decent read for our challenge. We learned about the building itself as well as its decline into a crumbling and crime-riddled stone around the neck of its owners, who fought its landmark status in an attempt to build something more profitable over top of it. The Wikipedia page for the Terminal has some more detailed information about the history, including a little about the fight, which went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Davis’s Author’s Note gives us a little information about the art school:
The Grand Central School of Art, founded by the painters Edmund Greacen, Walter Leighton Clark, and John Singer Sargent, opened in 1924 and enrolled as many as nine hundred students a year before closing in 1944.
And she says the two artist teachers at the heart of the historic part are based on Arshile Gorky and Helen Dryden, though their stories are different. Gorky really was Armenian and fled the genocide with his family; his mother died of starvation. He worked at the Grand Central School of Art. Although he did not die in a train accident, his fate was quite tragic–his studio burned down, he had cancer, he broke his neck and an arm in a car accident, his wife left, and ultimately, he died by suicide. Helen Dryden was actually active earlier than Clara–she worked for Vogue from 1909 to 1922. She also did work for Studebaker from 1935 to 1938. The Wikipedia page says by 1956 she was “living in a $10-a-week hotel room paid for by the city’s Welfare Department,” but there are no other details. It says she died in 1972, but, again, it doesn’t say how. There was no indication on that page of Dryden’s having worked as a teacher at the Grand Central School of Art or of her having known Arshile Gorky.
The book is also peppered with bits about the treatment of women, both in Virginia’s perceptions about herself since her mastectomy, and the differences in how we view the same behavior based on whether the person is male or female.
Mrs. Lorette shook her finger at her husband. “You see what you’re doing; you’re making her out to be a harridan while Levon Zakarian gets away with the same behavior and is considered brilliant. Not acceptable.” She was right. The descriptions of both artists were two sides of the same coin. Levon was mercurial and difficult. While Clara was shrewish and unyielding.
Overall, while it perhaps didn’t live up to my expectations, it was an interesting read and a decent pick for our New York list.