All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

on January 2, 2017

fifth-avenue-artists-societyThe Fifth Avenue Artists Society
Joy Callaway
Allen & Unwin
2016, 354p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The Bronx, 1891. Virginia Loftin, the boldest of four artistic sisters in a family living in genteel poverty, knows what she wants most: to become a celebrated novelist despite her gender, and to marry Charlie, the boy next door and her first love.

When Charlie instead proposes to a woman from a wealthy family, Ginny is devastated; shutting out her family, she holes up in her room and turns their story into fiction, obsessively rewriting a better ending. Though she works with newfound intensity, literary success eludes her-until she attends an elite salon hosted at her brother’s friend John Hopper’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Among painters, musicians, actors, and writers, Ginny returns to herself, even blooming under the handsome, enigmatic John’s increasingly romantic attentions.

But just as she and her siblings have become swept up in the society, Charlie throws himself back into her path, and Ginny learns that the salon’s bright lights may be obscuring some dark shadows. Torn between two worlds that aren’t quite as she’d imagined them, Ginny will realise how high the stakes are for her family, her writing, and her chance at love.

From the blurb, this sounded like a book that was right up my alley. Loved the sound of the setting – the Bronx in 1891 and a family that although well bred, were living basically in poverty. There’s a lot of artistry in the family but the girls have few prospects for marriage due to their poor financial situation. Virginia has been in love with Charlie, the boy next door, since she was a child and she has good reason to believe that it’s not unrequited. She expects Charlie to propose – he’s the artist to her writer, the two of them making a team. However Charlie stuns her and breaks her heart when he proposes to a wealthy woman instead.

And herein lies the biggest problem for me with this book – Charlie.

He was boring. A wet blanket who took the ‘easy’ way out and proposed to a woman he didn’t love, shattering the one he did, for financial reasons. Because the book begins when this occurs and we really only get a couple of flashbacks, to be honest, I couldn’t understand at all why Virginia was so in love with him. There was nothing that particularly stood out about him, that made him seem exceptional. His most defining characteristic was that he turned his back on a poor happiness in order for rich misery. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued to attempt to hang around on the periphery of Virginia’s life. The way in which Virginia went to pieces after Charlie proposed to someone else dragged out until I just wanted to shake her and tell her to have some self-respect. And he continues to draw out this situation by coming around every day, trying to see her – as if there’s anything he could say that would make her feel better.

I really wanted the story to move on from Charlie and it kind of does in a way but he’s always lurking there in the background. The idea of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society was fascinating but I didn’t find it a big enough part of the story. There was a nice ‘cameo’ by Edith Wharton and references to her husband Ted which was cool. But ultimately I expected more interesting things from that society rather than it just being the backdrop for something else, a sort of shadowy story line where some odd things are clearly happening. It’s incredibly easy for the reader to put together what is going on but perhaps the time and Virginia’s upbringing means that it’s not obvious to her. Or perhaps there are things that she just doesn’t want to see as she’s trying to move on from Charlie and I actually liked where it was going. It was a bit mysterious, a bit shadowy and Charlie still occupied her thoughts a lot but I could see how it might actually be able to go somewhere…..

I never really got the unconquerable love that Virginia and Charlie seemed to have, or how Virginia could be so weak when it came to him but perhaps that’s a product of the time. I really wanted her to find happiness with someone else who made her feel worthy….let Charlie lie in the bed he made. But it seems as though there are little in the way of consequences for Charlie – he continues to do whatever he want and be involved with Virginia and her family, often spending large amounts of time there. His wife is basically a non-existent character and there is little, if any reaction to his continued feelings towards Virginia which dip into inappropriate more than once.

I did really enjoy the family dynamics…..this was a family that went through some hard times and had some real discord and one thing I found interesting was the resentment that was often shown toward Virginia from one of her sisters. Virginia also displays somewhat progressive attitudes on certain things for the time (which I did wonder about as seeing quite unrealistic or very unlikely) although it may just be that she cared so much about that person that everything else didn’t matter to her, the way it did for other members of her family.

There were things I liked about this book but there were things that I also found not explored well enough or disappointing. The character of Charlie was so bland I couldn’t see why anyone would bother with them let alone why Virginia was so enamoured with him and the character of John felt a bit random in a way. He was constructed to give Virginia something else to think about but he wasn’t present enough for her to really develop a genuine interest. She also ignores some blatant red flags which seems a bit foolish. In fact, foolish is a good way to describe a lot of what Virginia does.


Book #214 of 2016

2 responses to “Review: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

  1. Fiona says:

    Great review! I agree with you. I really wanted to love this book but it just fell flat in some areas.

  2. Heidi says:

    You were more generous than I. This book made me groan out loud. Ginny was the most wishy washy character ever. Obsessing over Charlie, and dragging that into any and every experience she has. Worst was being with John but thinking about Charlie, and later being with Charlie but thinking about John. The whole middle of the book was a waste of paper. And the ending—- the cocaine and homosexuality and a bloody shirt. Then a wind up 41 years later. Puh-leeze. This book is the April choice for my Book Club. We have been meeting for over 20 years. This book is in my top 2 or 3 worst. Took several attempts before I could even make myself finish it.

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