Formerly a sought-after artists’ model, Lillian is rudderless and desperate—the work has dried up and a looming scandal has left her entirely without a safe haven. So when she stumbles upon an employment as a private secretary at the Frick mansion—a building that, ironically, bears her own visage—Lillian jumps at the chance. The more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family—pulling her into a tangled web of romantic trysts, stolen jewels, and family drama that runs so deep, the stakes just may be life or death.
Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, returns with a tantalizing novel about the secrets, betrayal, and murder within one of New York City’s most impressive Gilded Age mansions.
Eight months since losing her mother in the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, twenty-one-year-old Lillian Carter’s life has completely fallen apart. For the past six years, under the moniker Angelica, Lillian was one of the most sought-after artists’ models in New York City, with statues based on her figure gracing landmarks from the Plaza Hotel to the Brooklyn Bridge. But with her mother gone, a grieving Lillian is rudderless and desperate—the work has dried up and a looming scandal has left her entirely without a safe haven. So when she stumbles upon an employment opportunity at the Frick mansion—a building that, ironically, bears her own visage—Lillian jumps at the chance. But the longer she works as a private secretary to the imperious and demanding Helen Frick, the daughter and heiress of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, the more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family—pulling her into a tangled web of romantic trysts, stolen jewels, and family drama that runs so deep, the stakes just may be life or death.
Nearly fifty years later, mod English model Veronica Weber has her own chance to make her career—and with it, earn the money she needs to support her family back home—within the walls of the former Frick residence, now converted into one of New York City’s most impressive museums. But when she—along with a charming intern/budding art curator named Joshua—is dismissed from the Vogue shoot taking place at the Frick Collection, she chances upon a series of hidden messages in the museum: messages that will lead her and Joshua on a hunt that could not only solve Veronica’s financial woes, but could finally reveal the truth behind a decades-old murder in the infamous Frick family.
The Magnolia Palace is my second book by Fiona Davis. Last year, I read The Lions of Fifth Avenue.
Unlike other contemporary historical fiction authors I have read, Fiona Davis starts with a building, not a person, as the basis of her books. I enjoy this unique approach, especially as someone who has access to these buildings as a New Yorker. The Magnolia Palace is a story built around the Frick Mansion, now known as the Frick Collection, and tells the story of two women – one in 1919 and one in 1966.
Drawing from my experience reading Fiona Davis’s two most recent books, I find that she can craft a strong plot with a bit of mystery. Davis also does a great job writing dual timelines. Both timelines are interesting and focus on strong female protagonists. However, I have found her books lacking when it comes to character development and emotion.
The Magnolia Palace was an enjoyable read. I was fascinated by the compelling plot and reading about the Fricks. Yet, I found that most of the characters and relationships were two-dimensional. There was a short romantic subplot that I could have done without since it was very surface level. The standout portions of The Magnolia Palace were the plot, the exploration of the Fricks and their art collection, and the dynamic between Lillian and Helen Frick. I will say I also thought the 1966 storyline was a bit contrived, but it did not bother me much.
Overall, I enjoyed The Magnolia Palace but do recognize it had flaws. If you enjoy Fiona Davis’s writing, you will enjoy this book. If you enjoy historical fiction, I still think it is worth picking up with the awareness that you are unlikely to become emotionally invested in the characters.
The Magnolia Palace
January 25, 2022