Dial, 2016 321 pgs.
An old lady in a nursing home is interviewed by a reporter concerning her upcoming one-hundredth birthday, but the old woman is reluctant to talk. Instead, she gazes out of her window onto a cemetery, which hides the secrets of her life. The story now falls back in time to the roaring twenties New York City; to the truth behind the secrets. Martha is a young teen who is forced to leave her catholic school for insubordination. She takes a job with her mother as a maid in a household of an important newspaper magnet and his former socialite wife. The socialite, Rose, is now a recluse who spends all her time in her bedroom organizing and reorganizing an art collection of epic proportions, all while barely eating anything of substance. Mr. Swell, the master of the house, is clearly up to no good, hosting last-night guests and acting very suspicious. Martha, who is spunky and brighter than her station, questions the motives of Mr. Sewell, the true identity of the mysterious footman, and the current situation of Rose. She is convinced that foul play is the cause of Rose's mental illness and concocts a scheme to save her, all under the backdrop of a party of Gatsby proportions. Martha's plot does not go as planned, yet surprising allies, combining with true historical events, ensure that justice is served. All ends are satisfyingly wrapped up, including the importance of the cemetery, and Martha can rest in peace now that her story has been told and the truth divulged.
The glamour and gluttony of 1920's New York City elite is witnessed by a young maid, invisible to the powerful folks who surround her. Through Martha's eyes we see the corruption of the press during this time and the frantic greed exhibited by those obsessed with a ballooning stock market. Martha is limited by the weaknesses in the adults in her life and tries to set matters to right, only to have her plans fall apart. All is not lost, as by the end of the story, the adults come through and justice is done. I love books about art, the 1920's and New York City. I liked this book enough, but not nearly as much as Under the Egg, by the same author, which was my favorite book of 2014. The Gallery does not have the carefully woven layers of Marx-Fitzgerald's debut and the mystery is not as clear-cut and compelling; just mysterious people whose motivations need to be revealed and the truth behind a mysterious fire. This sophomore offering does highlight the 1920's in a spectacular fashion with a really cool party complete with circus performers and celebrities of the time. These celebrities may be lost on today's youth, as will the connection to Sacco and Vanzetti, who I'm quite sure are unknown to the intended audience. Marx-Fitzgerald includes an extensive author's note in the back explaining the history and motivations behind the book, including the historical identities of Sacco and Venzetti. Anyone who reads this section of the book will learn something. I, for one, did not know of the mini-crash that happened in March of 1929 before the fateful crash the following October. The author identifies the paintings highlighted in the book and where readers can see them in real life. She concludes with her main inspiration for the book: the Gardner Museum heist of 1990. This has also always intrigued me. I would like for someone to write a book speculating more closely on this event. Or the kidnapping of the Mona Lisa in 1911 is another story that would make a great historical fiction story for young people. Marx-Fitzgerald leaves the reader with a challenge to find the missing works of art from the Gardner. Maybe one her her young readers will take up the challenge.