A story of two women connected through family whose lives center around the New York Public Library and the strange disappearance of priceless books and antiquities.
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 is 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. And 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-averse 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.
Unlike other contemporary historical fiction authors I have read, Fiona Davis starts with a building, not a person, as the basis of her books. The Lions of Fifth Avenue, of course, being about the main New York Public Library branch, what is currently known as the Stephen A. Schwartzman building. The book focuses on two related female protagonists – one a librarian in 1993 and her grandmother, the wife of the live-in superintendent in 1913.
I was excited to read The Lions of Fifth Avenue despite having seen mixed reviews. What isn’t to like about a book focused on America’s best known library and the lives of two women? While I found the story interesting, I just was not wowed.
I enjoyed both protagonists’ storylines rife with mystery and women’s empowerment. But I wanted more. I wanted more feeling and depth to the characters. And I wanted more rich plot details. This was a book that I felt was plot driven at the expense of character development. I just craved a bit more of both.
I found Davis’s writing easy to read. However, I did not find any real emotion behind the characters, which I think will leave some readers grasping to connect with the protagonists. The one thing that really bothered me, as a New Yorker, was how on earth did this librarian afford her lifestyle. (As the partner of a librarian, this was even more perplexing.)
Overall, I enjoyed The Lions of Fifth Avenue and would recommend it for those who love a plot-driven book. It was a good book, but I was just hoping for a great one! I have another book by Fiona Davis on my shelves that I will be picking up in the future.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue
August 4, 2020