Library lovers will revel in the historical fiction of ‘The Lions of Fifth Avenue’

I could write a whole blog post about how much I love libraries, and all the ways libraries have been great friends all my life. But this is a book review, so I’ll just say that library love was the main reason I picked up The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) by Fiona Davis. And just like the actual libraries, this book did not disappoint me.

The first magical thing to know is that part of the premise is absolutely true: From 1910 to 1940, the superintendent of the New York Public Library’s newly built Fifth Avenue main building lived with his family inside the library in a seven-room apartment. Can you imagine?! Of course, his job to keep the library’s technical systems and physical plant running was a 24/7 job, so I’m sure it was not nearly as glamorous as it seems from this distance. On the other hand, what fun for his children, one of whom went on to be the library’s chief engineer, though he did not live inside the library as an adult.

But now I’ve gotten totally off track, which is just what happens when a book captures your imagination so thoroughly. The family in Davis’ book, Jack and Laura Lyons and their children, Harry and Pearl, bear little or no resemblance to the true story that inspired the novel. Our story opens in 1913, shortly after Jack and his family move into the brand-new library. While Jack is handy with tools and knows a lot about keeping the library running, his not-so-secret ambition is to be a writer and have his own books catalogued and shelved inside his new home. Laura wants to do whatever she can to help him realize his dreams. She presses Jack to let her attend Columbia University to earn a journalism degree that can help her get a job so Jack can write full-time. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, Jack is dubious about this plan but gives his tentative approval. Laura hadn’t counted on all the new people and experiences to which she would be exposed at university, and she finds herself changing in profound ways that affect her family.

That storyline alone would have been enough to keep me interested, but Davis also works in a contemporary timeline, featuring Jack and Laura’s granddaughter Sadie. Sadie never met her grandparents and her mother refused to talk about growing up in the library, but Sadie has nevertheless found her own employment at the NYPL, as the curator of a special collection. As she helps to plan a fundraising gala to spotlight the collection, a series of events bears an uncanny resemblance to things that happened while her grandparents lived in the library. But can she figure out the connections in time to save the reputation of her family — and herself?

The dual timelines aren’t hard to keep straight, and I found myself almost equally interested in both (with a slight preference for Jack and Laura in the 1910s). But they come together in a satisfying ending that neatly wraps up pretty much every dangling storyline. I think lovers of libraries and historical fiction will find a lot to like here.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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