“The Lions of Fifth Avenue" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
The lions in Fiona Davis’ latest book “The Lions of Fifth Avenue” refers to the majestic stone lions that grace the outside entryway to the New York Public Library. It also is the last name of the family residing in the library: Jack, Laura, Pearl and Henry Lyons.
In 1913, the Lyons lived in a large apartment located in the library. Jack, the library superintendent, loves living in the historical building. Laura thinks it’s a frigid place and worries about the lack of freedom and dearth of friends her two young children, Pearl and Henry, experience in such a vast, unusual place. Laura also is chafing at her lack of freedom in her role as a housewife and mother; she longs to write and support the suffragettes.
Told in alternating time periods, the story includes Sadie who works at the library in 1993, a curator of exhibits and professional librarian. She has a complex link to Laura. Their intertwined history unfolds as a tragic mystery is solved. The theft of rare books in 1913, which destroyed the lives of the Lyons, are very similar to the thefts of rare books in 1993 under Sadie’s watch.
Laura and Sadie, women from different eras, are the focal points of the novel. Laura is Sadie’s grandmother whom Sadie never met. Pearl, Laura’s daughter and Sadie’s mother, has never wanted to talk about her famous mother, Laura Lyons.
Although Laura has earned a lasting reputation as an essayist, mostly writing about women’s issues, Pearl hides a background that’s tragic and embarrassing.
During Laura’s tenure at the library in1913, the thefts of books ruined her husband’s reputation. Jack and his family are the ones with access to the rare books when the library is closed. No thefts can be traced to in-house loans during the day.
In 1993, as Sadie gathers the rare materials for the library’s newest exhibition, she finds that several of the items she plans to display are missing. Only she and one other employer have access to materials housed deep within the library, actually kept in a “cage.” Sadie is a suspect, and when she is placed on leave she begins an ambitious search to find the person responsible for the current thefts. In a strange twist, she also uncovers information that solves the mystery of the 1913 thefts.
When Sadie’s search takes her to London, she meets someone who knew her grandmother well. Sadie follows a lead to the one living person who has personal knowledge of the location of the rare books stolen in 1913 and in 1993.
“The Lions of Fifth Avenue” is a pleasing novel of tragedy and romance. It includes historical elements and mystery that will engage the reader. Davis’ other novels, which are set in New York, include “The Address,” based on The Dakota, and “The Masterpiece,” featuring the Grand Central Terminal. Fans will recognize her style of alternating time periods and her focus on characters who have connections with each other through the centuries.