The Magnolia Palace: A Novel


Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis writes historical novels about the rich and famous characters or historical places of the past. Her novels are designed to place the reader in the time historical time period as a witness to what was transpiring at that time. The author stays close to the truth but takes creative license by introducing fictional characters or events. The Magnolia Palace: A Novel: adheres to the same guidelines and tells us the story of Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen Clay Frick at the end of the old man’s life.

The story is set in New York City, weaves back and forth between the 1920s and the 1960s and begins in the former time period with Angelica a model for a number of sculptures in New York City. Angelica’s mother has died and her modeling career has dried up. The final push to homelessness occurs when her landlord kills his wife and Angelica is wanted for questioning. Angelica is scared she will be convicted for a crime she had nothing to do with so she runs from the police. During her travails she comes across her image on the porte-cochere of the Frick family where a staff member offers her a cup of tea. Immediately thereafter, she is mistaken as a applicant for a personal secretary to Miss Helen Frick.

While the case of mistaken identity is a bit trite, I kept reading because I wanted to know where the story went.

Cut to 1966 where Veronica, a young British model is trapped by accident in the Frick mansion after a snowstorm shuts down the city. While in the mansion, she encounters Joshua, an intern who was also trapped. Security prohibits them from leaving and they fear if they trigger the alarm, they will be suspected of stealing.

Back to Angelica who now uses her real surname, Lillian Carter. After working hard at the job of personal secretary with success for several weeks, Mr. Frick asks Lillian to secure a marriage proposal for Helen Frick by a Mr. Richard Danforth. It appears Miss Frick is anxious about any type of courting. The story tells us of what happened during that courtship and also provides a look at the relationship between Henry Clay Frick and his two living children, Helen, and Childs.

Meanwhile, Veronica has discovered some old letters which reveal a scavenger hunt. The intern surmises that Helen Frick wrote the letters. Veronica and the Joshua follow the clues which lead to the discovery of a cameo missing since the death of Henry Clay Frick.

I have read quite a bit about Henry Clay Frick and Helen as they are from Pittsburgh where I grew up. I have visited the Frick mansion in Pittsburgh and in New York City so it was exciting to relive my visits through this novel. The author throws in a few twists to keep the reader engaged. In addition, it was interesting to learn that there really was a famous model (Audrey Munson) who served as the face for many well-known sculptures in NYC including the pediment on the front of the Frick Collection on East 70th street, the Pulitzer fountain across from the plaza and the Maine monument in Columbus circle.

Overall, I though The Magnolia Palace: A Novel was a well written book that perhaps slightly over exaggerates in parts. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable read which provides some history lessons at the same time.