The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, 321 pp, RL 4
Laura Marx Fitzgerald says that her two favorite books (which also happen to be my two childhood favorites) are The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This love and appreciation shines through when you read either of her two books. Marx debuted in 2014 with Under the Egg, a mystery novel that combined a treasure hunt with a work of art, World War II and the dying words of a grandfather to his granddaughter. With The Gallery, Marx continues to weave art and mystery, this time setting her story in the past.
It's 1928 in New York City and Martha O'Doyle has been kicked out of Catholic school for faking "lady complaints" one time too many and asking Sister Ignatius why Eve was punished for wanting knowledge when, in fact, isn't that what we're all "sent here to do? Learn things?" Martha is a girl who notices the world around her and finds ways to move about in it and also a girl who isn't afraid to ask questions. This makes her perfectly suited to rescue the crazy woman who is being held in the attic of the 5th Avenue mansion of Mr. J. Archer Sewell, publisher of the Daily Standard.
Marx does a fantastic job of layering historical events and characters into her story, from Prohibition to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti to Yellow Journalism and the race for president between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. This definitely adds a richness to the novel, as well as sense of tarnish starting to show on the waning Gilded Age, but my favorite thread in The Gallery is the story that Marx tells using real works of art. Martha story begins with a discussion of knowledge and her being kicked out of school. Her mother, the head housekeeper at Mr. Sewell's 5th Avenue mansion, puts her to work as a scullery maid and Martha's real education begins.
Martha is intrigued by the crazy woman, the former Rose Pritchard, now Mrs. J. Archer Sewell, with a guard sleeping outside her door, and her art collection, which she keeps locked in her room with her instead of the gallery inside the mansion where it once was hung. When Martha forgets to put the "special sugar" that Mr. Sewell acquires specially for Rose, on her evening porridge and (coincidentally?) Rose has an outburst, Martha is removed from her kitchen duties and sent to clean the house, where she has more time to talk to Alphonse, the footman of indeterminate European origin but rich with knowledge of languages, mythology and art history. As Martha learns more about the singular painting (which can change at any moment) that Rose decides to let leave her room and hang on the wall of the mansion, she realizes that Rose is sending a message with each painting, a message Martha is determined to decode.
The Gallery is a story that is populated with fascinating female characters. Martha's mother is struggling to support Martha and her twin sons while her errant, alcoholic husband is on the road performing his vaudeville act with two skeletons he won in a bet. She is also fiercely proud of the job she does keeping the mansion running and the "teamwork" that Mr. Sewell speaks of with his staff. She lets Martha know that, back in Ireland, she could never have risen to this position and had the opportunity be treated as an (almost) equal by the master of the house. And, just when you think that Ma will be too enchanted by Mr. Sewell and his false flattery to do the right thing, she suprises you. Then there is Rose, the wild Rose who rebelled against her father's wealth and sense of propriety, going undercover to work in one of his factories, traveling the world by cargo ship and joining union picket lines. Meanwhile, she also collected artwork by Picasso, Rosetti, Courbet, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Gentileschi. Sometimes, Martha herself seems to pale in comparison, but her combination of naiveté and street smarts make her the perfect protagonist.
Source: Review Copy & Purchased Audio Book