Being a person who loves books and reading, the thought of living in a library is exhilarating. Since that isn’t likely to happen, I do what readers do, I search out books for a vicarious experience. So, The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis was a perfect book for me. Taking place in two time periods, the first 1913-1914 centers on a family living in the residential area of the newly built New York Public Library, and the second in 1993 centers on a female employee working as a curator of historical literary items belonging to the New York Public Library.
Laura Lyons, her husband Jack, and their two children are the first people to live in the residential quarters of the newly built New York Public Library in 1912. The (now) famous stone lions greet them as they enter the building. Jack is the superintendent of the library, in charge of making sure the library runs smoothly. He is also an aspiring author who has been working on a manuscript for several years and is at its point of completion in 1913, when we join the family there. With a household to run and two children, Pearl and Harry, Laura has her hands full, but she has dreams of her own. Having completed a college degree before marriage, Laura is at a point in her life where she feels she can once again seek something of her own, outside of the home. She enrolls in the Columbia School of Journalism, a year-long program, hoping to get her journalism degree and obtain a job at a newspaper. Bringing in more money to the household would be of great benefit to the family and allow her to have a career.
Laura’s pursuit of her journalism degree brings her to involvement in the women’s rights movement in NYC, to its heart in Greenwich Village, and exposes her to ideas and women who want more out of life than previously defined roles of wife and mother. It’s all fascinating to Laura, and it appeals to her longing for a self-worth she could have as an independent woman. As Laura gets deeper into the world of women’s rights and Jack gets closer to his finished manuscript, problems arise at the library. Books have gone missing, and not just any books, rare, one-of-a-kind books kept in a locked stacks area of the library. The library hires a private investigator, and nerves are frayed as suspicions are cast.
In 1993, Sadie works as a curator in the New York Public Library in the Berg collection, a collection that contains rare first edition books, letters and journals of authors, and other primary literary resources. An important exhibit is coming up for the Berg Collection, one which needs to impress donors and patrons. Sadie finds herself in charge of the exhibit after her boss abruptly leaves to take another job. Sadie is thrilled and is determined to create a stunning presentation of how important the Berg collection is as a keeper of literary and library history. Then, the thefts begin and threaten to derail everything Sadie has worked so hard to achieve. Just like in 1913, it is a theft of rare books, including a page from Shakespeare’s First Portfolio.
Sadie knows she will have to solve the mystery of the missing items, and it becomes clear that she will have to take on the mystery of the 1913 missing books, too. History has repeated itself, and Sadie has kept a secret from her employers, the New York City Public Library, that places her right in the middle of that history. No one at the library knows that Sadie is the granddaughter of Laura Lyons. With the similarities in the rare book thefts, it’s a secret that may finally have to be told. In another repeat of history, the library hires a private detective to root out the thief, but the current investigation will see a cooperative spirit between library employee Sadie and the detective. Of course, there’s no guarantee the relationship will stay that course.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue is historical fiction, but with the added mystery of missing books and wily thieves. I was thrilled to learn more about this iconic landmark, The New York Public Library, as its history is so rich and enduring. From the famous lions, now called Patience and Fortune, to the ephemera of the treasured collections, this book tells a story of what stands the test of time. It is a story that reaches back 80 years to connect two women, both who long to make a difference and struggle against the odds life has dealt them. And, it is the story of a family’s struggle to discover and accept truths that have stayed buried for those eight decades.
I highly recommend this book to those who love reading and libraries and history and mystery. The author Fiona Davis has written more historical fiction books about New York City icons of history, and I’m looking forward to reading them all.