The Masterpiece

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I'm not sure from where I got my copy, but it was marked "Advance Reading Copy" and indicated that some page numbers may be different than the official printing. There may be slight discrepancies in quoted material as well.

Sometimes I feel like there is some unwritten new rule that says books can't be written in linear fashion anymore - they must bounce back and forth between two time periods. In that regard, this book is a rule follower as it hops between 1928 and 1974. Otherwise, it is a book about women who broke the rules that society set for them. Usually in these books with two timelines, I have a preference for one story line over another, but this novel was a delight in that I liked both story lines equally well.

The women are Clara, who came to New York from Arizona to prove to herself (and her father) that she could make it as an artist and Virginia Clay, a forty year old divorcee who was married to a lawyer for twenty years and has one, college-aged daughter, Ruby, who is actually taking a break from college.

If you've ever set foot in Grand Central Terminal, the imagery in this book will set you right back there. The cover art is beautiful and equally evocative.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 2

Religion: 1

Gruesome: 0

Suspense: 4

Morality: 3

Traditional: 1

Sex - vague mentions of nude models. End Ch. 8, just a tasteful hint of what would occur. A couple of other instances but the majority of it happens "off pages". When Clara and Oliver are at the summer school, she does not allow him into her bed because she is concerned about other people overhearing. (Ch. 15, ePg. 207) One character made a comment about another, saying "The type of woman who's only good when she's on her back." to which the other woman retorted, "It was from behind, actually." (Ch. 22, ePg. 306)

Religion - a reference to "an eye for an eye" in Ch. 12

Gruesome - nothing to recall

Suspense - end of Ch. 2 when Virginia finds three men in the upper hallway. I found the Art Student's League scene in Ch. 10 somewhat suspenseful; I'm excited to see what they discover. The letter Virginia opened on Thanksgiving day. (Ch. 13) I did not expect any suspense in this story and it actually wound up to have quite a bit. Not terrifying suspense, but the kind that makes you want to keep reading to see what happens next. Adding to the suspense were a couple of red-herrings that cast suspicion on other characters. (ref. Ch. 17, ePg. 234)

Morality - sex on a first date. A mugger uses the "f" word. (Ch. 14) A woman uses her wiles to get something she wants. An overall message of standing up for what's right and not giving up the fight too soon.

Traditional - the 1970's story line has a gay man that we meet in Ch. 9 He is a supporting character and his sexual preferences are not really dwelt upon.

In Chapter 5 we begin to get the idea that Virginia is a breast cancer survivor with some vague references to scars and disfigurement and a tendency to cover her right breast. Not until Chapter 9 is the "C" word actually used.

I like that the language is specific to the period, for instance, when Virginia in the '70's remembers "necking" when she was younger, probably in the '50's, just like Richie Cunningham. Chapter 8 has a brilliant analogy that compares 1920s fashion and courting (again with the vocab). In Chapter 11 she describes a bowtie as "natty" which doesn't sound very flattering but it was meant to be. Google defines "natty" as "smart and fashionable" - so it's accurate, but in this case I think a less "period" word should've been used. It's one word in the whole book though, so not really a big deal.

It was hard to imagine Vogue with illustrated covers, but you can find some on Google or scroll to the bottom of the page. The Madame Ginoux by Van Gogh, referred to in Ch. 12, is a real painting. Also true to history, Studebaker really did make a "Dictator" model.

One part of the novel that I felt was weak was the idea that Virginia would consult her ex-husband, a lawyer, because her upstairs neighbor wanted to claim damages from the fire. Maybe it was different in the '70s, but I would expect the insurance company to handle it. However, this led to one of my favorite lines in the book, perhaps because it rings so true: "He never once asked Virginia about her life. Just like old times." (Ch. 18)

Discussion Questions

Clara enjoyed the Whispering Gallery with Oliver. (Ch. 1, Pg. 11) Where have you been that acoustics allowed you to play with sounds.

At the bar in Ch. 3, Standish believes, "a realistic drawing of peasants working in a field is a truer work of art, as comparted to a mishmash of shapes and colors signifying nothing" whereas Mr. Zakarian thinks true talent needs "inspiration, not rigid rules". Which do you prefer?

Virginia's first date as a divorced woman seemed a little too easy, not to mention over-friendly (Dennis kissed her cheek and rubbed her hand often). Have you had a first date as an adult? Do you have any funny stories to tell about it?

Do you think the woman on the cover is Clara going to the May ball in the dress that Oliver got for her?

Regarding Clara, were you team Oliver or team Levon?

Who else did you think was in the old art school, moving things around and opening crates? (Ch. 10)
Who did you think sent the letter to Virginia in Ch. 13?

When looking at the Madame Ginoux, Clara appreciated that she wasn't "spruced up" and decided she wanted to be remembered as "hardy, wary and tender". (Ch. 12) Did Clara succeed in being remembered this way? How would you like to be remembered?

The day after Levon threw Mr. Hornsby out of his studio, Clara was still angry about it. Did she have a right to be angry?

Ruby chose the Thanksgiving meal to start drama with her announcement. Why? Have you ever had a dramatic holiday meal?
Virginia was proud of herself for reacting in the moment. Are you quick or slow to react? Did you agree with her reaction / ultimatum?

What is the significance of Ruby pursuing photography in contrast to photography overtaking Clara's illustration career?
Clara is forward thinking but Virginia is not so progressive and wants to hang on to the past of Grand Central.
Is Clara of the past balanced more by Virginia or Ruby of the recent time period?

Were you surprised at what Virginia learned when she called Dennis on Thanksgiving. (end Ch. 13)

Was Clara right to accept the marriage proposal in Ch. 15, based on her justifications?

Levon said Clara would have found her way to success, with or without Oliver. What do you think?
Are certain people critical to achieving one's destiny? (end Ch. 15)

Ch. 16 ends with Clara wanting to shine up her apartment. Virginia is frequently described as polishing parts of the information booth. What is the significance of all this cleaning?

Virginia recalled oyster crackers being a large part of her pregnancy diet. (Ch. 18) Do you have any memories of your pregnancy diet?

Several times in the novel, there is commentary about gender roles - both in the late '20s and the mid-'70s. From obvious situations like Clara having to paint as Clyde and the more subtle situations, such as when men barged in on Virginia being painted nude - she had been vulnerable and brave, until the men came in. (ref. p. 334) Do you feel the main female characters faced the same type of obstacles in each time period? Do women today still face obstacles?

Theme Ideas

Decorate with Georgia O'Keeffe art, which was the catalyst for Virginia figuring out who was threatening her. (Ch. 22, ePg. 300)



  • Joni MItchell, because when Virginia arrived at the legal department she noted that the receptionist had a Joni Mitchell hairstyle (Ch. 2)

  • Donny Osmand, like Ruby was singing when Virginia and Chester called her from her room to talk about the divorce (Ch. 2, Pg. 20)

  • "New York, NY", for obvious reasons but especially after Clara's father told her "You'll never make it there". (Ch. 4)

  • "My Blue Heaven" like at the May ball

  • piano music, for Finn, especially Cole Porter (Ch. 9)

It was hard to imagine Vogue with illustrated covers, here is an example found via Google search.