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The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis.

March 19, 2020

The Lions of Fifth Avenue
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis.  Penguin, 2020.

2 stars

Forthcoming, July 2020

A shallow and simplistic historical novel about two women, almost a century apart, who are caught up in the investigations of thefts of rare books and manuscripts from The New York Public Library.

Fiona Davis was born in Canada and lived in various towns in the USA as a child.  Her undergraduate degree is from William and Mary University and her Masters is from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.  When she first came to New York, she worked in the theater.  In recent years she has turned to writing popular fiction.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue moves back and forth between two women both involved in uncovering thefts of rare books and manuscripts from the New York Public Library.  Laura Lyons was the wife of an early library director who lived in the Library with her husband and their two children in 1914.  Bored with her restricted life  as a wife and mother, Laura improbably studies journalism. Even more untypcially, she becomes involved with Heterodoxy, a women’s organization which discussed radical gender alternatives.  The other woman is Sadie, her granddaughter who works with rare books and manuscripts at the library eighty years later.  When rare items go missing, the two women are implicated.  In the chaos that follows, both face decisions about potential conflicts between love and careers.

The plot of the book is clever rather than plausible.  Minor errors are present: a child does not lose baby teeth at age eleven.  The lesbian theme is nice if unlikely.  But the real problem is with the failure of Davis to deal adequately with the historical background of early twentieth century New York, and especially with the options of the women who lived there.  Historical fiction is always a blend of what we can factually know about the past and an author’s imagination.  The best of the genre display a deep knowledge and sensitivity about a time and place out of which characters are drawn.  Davis fails at this task.  Details may or may not be accurate, but they reveal little of what life was like in 1914 for an elite woman bored with her life.  Economic and cultural differences are ignored.  It is not enough to simply find a handful of potentially interesting individuals from the past and throw their names at random into a story, as Davis seems to have done.  Overlooking the variety and complexity of radicalism and women’s causes in the early twentieth century city, she lumps together everyone who challenged tradition without explaining why radicals welcomed such a clueless wife and mother.

Davis’s approach is also irritating because they reflect sloppiness about factual accuracy in our society.  Fiction about ethnic identity often has a similar problem.  For me the issue is not simply the identity of the author but whether or not an author has the experience and sensitivity to adequately describe a time and place different from their own.  Popular fiction or history needs to be true to what can be known even as it allows authors to be imaginative about what cannot be known.  Davis fails badly in this regard.

I cannot recommend this book to anyone.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2020 4:20 pm

    Oh dear.

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