In the world’s fastest growing city, where well over a dozen daily newspapers were read by more than five million people, the year 1914 burst forth with the Great War and battles over modernism and women’s rights. While immigrants lived in stifling squalor on the Lower East Side, the lingering Gilded Age millionaires and new industrialists dispensed extraordinary philanthropy. Two of the institutions they created — the New York Public Library and the Columbia Journalism School — play important roles in Fiona Davis’s new novel, The Lions of Fifth Avenue (Dutton).

As always, the author is at her best with the resonance between the past and present, linking two women living in different eras who share an independent spirit and appreciation of history. In The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Davis’s narrative moves between 1914 and 1993. The earlier of the two timelines introduces readers to an aspiring writer, Laura Lyons, who lives in a hidden apartment in the brand-new New York Public Library with her husband, who is the building superintendent, and two children. In the later of the two timelines, we also meet Sadie Donovan, Laura’s granddaughter, a curator at the library who is unlucky in love with an enigmatic personality that owes something to her grandmother. 

Unfortunately, Sadie is confounded by family secrets as she sets off to solve a mystery that involves the disappearance — twice — of valuable books from the library. The first incident occurred nearly 80 years earlier on her grandfather’s watch and the second one is happening right now under her own nose in 1993. Inevitably, Sadie falls under suspicion but she continues to sleuth for answers with the support of her physician brother, his lawyer wife and the ceremonious British executor of Laura Lyons’s estate. Add to the mix a male detective hired by the library board. Sadie is attracted to him and the feeling seems mutual although professionally he must regard her as a suspect.     

Sadie knows that her grandmother, Laura, eventually became a famous essayist. But she doesn’t yet know that Laura tried — often clumsily — to escape the clutches of imperious though seemingly sympathetic men who thwarted her desire to write and be published. These included her father, her husband, the library director and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. Eventually, Laura finds her way with the love and support of members of the Heterodoxy Club of Greenwich Village, a group of feminists who embrace suffrage, reproductive rights, sexual freedom and general mutiny. 

In The Lions of the Fifth Avenue, Fiona Davis once again brilliantly captures time and place in a story of mystery, misfortune and romance — in a Manhattan that we recognize yet seems just out of reach.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue  is available for purchase, and will be released August 4, 2020.

Photographer: Deborah Feingold

Fiona Davis kicked off her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway and in regional theater. After ten years, she decided to dabble in writing and started out as an editor. She is also a graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Currently, she is based in New York City, even though she has lived in various parts of the world, including Canada and New Jersey.