The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
By Joy Callaway
Trade paperback, 356 pages
time period: 1891
Setting: Bronx, New York
Virginia Loftin has struggled to break through the barrier of gender inequality at a time when few women became published authors. After the death of her father, she, her mother, three sisters and brother must struggle to earn wages that united they manage to barely make ends meet. Her sister, Alevia, is a passionate pianist who aspires to perform at Carnegie Hall, Bess is a popular milliner, Mae is a teacher, Virginia writes for the Boston Review and brother, Franklin, works as a salesman for J.L. Mott Iron Works.
It is with deep regret that Virginia witnesses her childhood friend and neighbor, Charlie Aldridge, propose to Rachel Kent. Feeling that they were destined to be married and have a life of love and art appreciation, she felt a soul deep sadness for the loss of her future. She severs their relationship even on a level of friendship.
Shortly after, she’s introduced to the Fifth Avenue Artists Society by her brother, Franklin. She literally enters a world that accepts men and women as equals when it comes to appreciation of the arts. These are people that follow society’s norms until they come together in this exceptional salon. Here they openly critique each other’s writing, paint in the natural setting, and some of the women even dare to wear pants. Among Virginia, Franklin, and their sister Alevia, is a parlor filled with writers and artists, including American novelist Edith Wharton and Irish playwright, novelist, essayist and poet, Oscar Wilde. Franklin introduces her to Lydia, and it’s clear to see they are in love and also to Doctor Hopper and his son, John. More than anything, Franklin wishes that John and Virginia could share their lives together. John wants the same thing, having lost the woman he loved he can’t bear to lose another.
But even the Artists Society has its secrets. They may write passages that delve into human emotion, but in truth they bury their deepest emotion.
The Fifth Avenue Artists Society took me by surprise. I expected social conformity, following the unspoken mores, gorgeous dresses and coiffures, settling for loveless, arranged marriages. The settling for financial security was part of the plot, but the rest of the book was about the ageless issues that strike every generation. This wasn’t about perfection like Downton Abbey. Though, I love Downton Abbey. This was about heartbreak for losing the one man you loved all your life so he could continue supporting his mother and their lifestyle. It’s about struggling to pay the bills because your father died and the funds have dwindled. You use your talents to earn enough money to make it from month to month. Then there’s the desire to realize your dreams and having to deal every day of your life with unfairness and theft. This book went along at a normal predictable pace and then hits you with twists that shifts the characters’ lives with each blow. Stating where the characters were from chapter to chapter was helpful in following the plot. The story progressed well, the dialogue was realistic, you appreciated what the women did to keep a roof over their heads. A bit disappointed that there was a “never knowing what happened” part. Just so you are aware, the author was inspired to weave in her family’s history with fiction. I think that made the story more interesting. Look for the photographs in the back of the book.
Five exceptional manuscripts out of five
September 5, 2016