"The Lions of Fifth Avenue" is our August "GMA" Book Club pick!
The "Lions of Fifth Avenue," by Fiona Davis, is a novel set in the legendary New York Public Library; the storytelling alternates between the two smart, strong-willed women living 80 years apart: Laura Lyons, the wife of the library’s superintendent and a famous essayist, in 1913, and Sadie Donovan, a curator at the library in 1993.
Laura is Sadie's estranged grandmother, whom she knows very little about. But when rare manuscripts about Laura Lyons for an exhibition Sadie is curating go missing, unwelcome truths about her family heritage are uncovered.
Davis said the book is "historical fiction plus a mystery all rolled up into one."
"I'm so thrilled that my book, 'The Lions of Fifth Avenue,' was chosen as the 'GMA' Book Club pick for August," Davis said. "It's set at the New York Public Library and it's about a family that lives in an apartment deep inside the building, an apartment that actually existed. It's about the magic of the written word and the power of women's voices, and it's dedicated to some of my favorite people: librarians."
Get started reading now with an excerpt of the book below.
- 3August 3, 2020
New York City, 1913
She had to tell Jack.
He wouldn’t be pleased.
As Laura Lyons returned from running errands, turning over in her head the various reactions her husband might have to her news, she spotted the beggar perched once again on the first tier of the granite steps that led to her home: seven rooms buried deep 21 inside the palatial New York Public Library. This time, the beggar woman’s appearance elicited not pity but a primal fear. It was certainly some kind of ominous sign, one that made Laura’s heart beat faster. A woman on the verge of ruin, alone and without any resources. Unloved.
The beggar’s black mourning gown was more tattered than it had been last week, fraying at the sleeves and hem, and her face shone with summer sweat. Every few days for the past month, she’d taken up a spot off to one side of the grand entryway under one of the towering stone lions, one of which had been named Leo Astor and the other Leo Lenox, after two of the library’s founders, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Laura’s children had admired them right off, with Harry claiming Lenox as his pet and Pearl doing the same for Astor, neither caring that the sculptures had initially been mocked in the newspapers as a cross between a dachshund and a rabbit. Only last week, Laura had just barely prevented her son from carving his initials into the sinewy rump of Leo Lenox.
The beggar woman shifted, finding what shade she could. The miserable-looking child who typically filled her lap was missing. Laura wondered where he was.
“Money or food, please, miss. Either will do.”
Laura reached into her shopping basket and pulled out two apples. One of the library’s employees would shoo the beggar away soon enough, and she was glad to have caught her in time, even if the act of offering the poor woman assistance was inspired, at least in part, by a ridiculous superstitious bargain that only existed in Laura’s mind. As if extending a kindness to someone in need would smooth the conversation ahead.
“Thank you, miss.” The woman tucked the fruit away in her pockets. “God bless.” Laura hurried up the steps and into Astor Hall, past the dozens of visitors milling about, their voices echoing off the marble steps, the marble floors, the marble walls. Even the decorative bases for the bronze candelabras were made from Carrara stone sliced from the Alps. The choice kept the building cool on steamy September days like this one, even if in winter it was like walking into an icebox, particularly in the evenings when the library was closed and the furnaces only lightly fed.
She turned left down the grand South-North Gallery, passing under a series of globed pendants of thick, curved glass that broke up the long lines of the coffered ceiling. About halfway down the hallway, she took a right, then another, before climbing up a narrow set of stairs that led to the mezzanine-level apartment where her family had lived for the past two years.
Their seven private rooms formed a right angle that hugged a corner of one of the library’s two inner courtyards, the bedrooms and Jack’s study along one side, and the kitchen, dining room, and sitting room along the other. The open area that formed the crux of the right angle, and where the stairway emerged, had become the kids’ playroom, where Harry laid out his train tracks in one corner and Pearl parked her doll’s pram under the door of the dumbwaiter. When they first moved in, Jack had had to give them a stern warning when they were caught poking their heads inside the dark shaft, but soon enough the family had settled in and adjusted to their new surroundings.
The director of the library—Jack’s boss—had pointed out during their orientation how the classical architecture of the building followed a progression from hard materials to soft, starting with the stone entrance hall before yielding to the wood paneling of the interior rooms. Laura had done her part to stay true to the continuum, softening the hard floors with a mishmash of Oriental rugs and hanging thick drapes over the giant windows. On the fireplace mantel, she’d framed the newspaper article about their unusual living arrangements that had been written the year they moved in.
She called out the children’s names as she headed to the kitchen, and the sound of their heavy stomping behind her brought a smile to her face.
“Harry lost another tooth.” Pearl dashed in first, her eyes flashing with glee from scooping the news out from under her brother.
Laura would have thought living in a library would turn them into a couple of bookworms, but Pearl wanted nothing to do with stories unless they involved ghosts or animals. Harry was different, although he preferred not to read himself but rather to be read to, particularly from his worn copy of Maritime Heroes for Boys. Earlier that summer, when Jack quoted a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Laura’s ear in a silly falsetto while she washed the dishes, Harry had demanded to know what it meant. At his bedtime, Laura had taken down the volume from the bookcase and read some of the poems aloud to him. Harry interrupted to ask questions about the more ribald phrases, which Laura dodged as best she could. Later, when she and Jack were lying next to each other in bed, they laughed quietly about their son’s natural— and thoroughly innocent— ear for the smuttier bits.
Where Pearl could be bossy, Harry was sweet, if sometimes dim when it came to the vagaries of human nature. When Laura dropped the children off at the school on Forty- Second and Second Avenue for the first time two years ago, Pearl had taken a moment to analyze the groups of schoolgirls arrayed around the playground, figuring out the best approach, while Harry had recklessly stumbled over to some boys playing marbles, accidentally kicking several with his foot in the process, which resulted in a hard shove and a quick rejection.
Harry, at eleven, was older by four years, but Pearl was wiser, faster. Laura and Jack had discarded the original name they’d picked for their daughter—Beatrice—after she showed up with a white frost of fine hair covering her head, more like a little old lady than a baby girl. Her eyes weren’t the vivid blue of Laura’s but more of a gray, and her features and coloring gave her an ethereal appearance. “Pearl,” Laura had said, and Jack had agreed, tears in his eyes. “Pearl.”
The last school year had been tough for Harry, who, unlike his sister, never brought friends home to play or got invited to birthday parties. Laura hoped this year would be different and he’d gain some confidence, especially since, if everything went according to plan, she wouldn’t be around as much.
Pearl ushered her brother into the kitchen. “Show her the tooth, Harry.”
He opened his palm, where a baby tooth sat like a rare jewel. Laura took it and held it to the light. “It’s a beauty, let’s see your gap.”
He smiled wide, showing off the space where one of his canines had been. “It didn’t hurt at all, I was playing with it with my tongue, and suddenly, pop, it was gone.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t choke on it,” said Pearl. “I know a girl who did and she died.”
“Pearl, that’s not true.” Harry looked up at Laura for confirmation.
You don’t have to worry about that.” Laura pocketed the tooth in her apron. “Now go get cleaned up before your father comes home.”
She cut up the roast beef and potatoes from the other night, glad to not have to turn on the stove in this heat, and was slicing apples for dessert just as Jack came in.
Jack yanked at his tie and looked wildly around the tiny room. “I don’t have time for dinner, the payroll still needs to be done.”
This wasn’t the right time for her news. She gave him a quick kiss, then turned and slid the letter that she’d left out on the work03 table back into the pocket of her apron.
“Of course you have time for dinner, it’s still early.”
But she knew what he meant. He meant that if he skipped dinner, he would have time to do both the payroll and work on his manuscript. The book he’d started several years ago and was so close to finally completing.
“Can I take it into my study?” He shifted the payroll file to his left hand and grabbed a slice of apple. “I can do the numbers for payroll and eat at the same time.”
His beseeching eyes reminded her of their son’s. She made a plate and carried it into the extra bedroom, where he’d pushed one of the library desks up against the window. It was all out of proportion for the room, like a huge wooden barge squeezed into a tiny boathouse.
He was already working his way down the rows of the ledger, filling in each one with the name, position, and monthly salary of the eighty people under his employ at the New York Public Library. She looked over his shoulder at the list: attendants, porters, elevator runners, carpenters, steamfitters, electricians, stack runners, janitors, coal passers. And at the very top, Jack Lyons, superintendent.
When he’d been offered the job, back when they still lived at the Meadows, Laura had been reluctant to return to the city. Reluctant to give up the sunshine and fresh air that living sixty miles north of New York provided the children, as well as the kind community of fellow workers who lived within the perimeter of the ramshackle estate where Jack oversaw the grounds. The decision to move out to the country in the first place hadn’t been her idea, either, but the position had offered them an escape of sorts: a way for Laura to avoid the worst of her father’s wrath and disapproval at being an expecting bride. Together, she and Jack had decided to forgo the city lights for a quieter life, where Jack diligently oversaw the estate during the day and wrote at night. Every winter, Harry and Pearl marched out to sled down the big hill behind the owners’ mansion after the first snowfall, and every spring, they picked daffodils from their cottage garden and presented them to Laura as if they were made of spun gold.
But then the wealthy old couple who owned the estate died, and their grown children decided to sell off the land, sending the employees packing.
Laura, Jack, and the children had moved into the library just before it opened to the public. Laura’s view of the giant oak tree outside the caretaker’s cottage window had been replaced with the harsh whiteness of twelve- inch-thick blocks of marble. Not a speck of green to be seen. The walnut paneling in the salon and the modern kitchen had appealed to her at first, as did the idea of living within the walls of the most beautiful building in Manhattan, but the isolation had eventually worn her down. While the library had lived up to its founders’ expectations as the largest marble building in the world, an inspired example of classical design that took sixteen years to complete, Laura hadn’t realized how remote their lives inside the white fortress would be. There were no neighbors to wave hello to each morning, as there had been at the brownstone where she grew up, nor picnics down by the river with the other families, as at the Meadows. Instead, just an endless parade of anonymous visitors who came in to see if the building lived up to its reputation for grandeur and beauty (the answer was always was a resounding yes), or those who simply wanted to pull up a chair in the Main Reading Room.
Jack swaggered about the building as if it were his own castle, which, in some ways, it was. He knew all the secrets, every nook and cranny. He bragged about the place to the children so often that they easily parroted back his statistics: thousands of visitors a day, eighty- eight miles of stacks holding one million books. And in the very middle of it all, their small family, tucked behind a hidden stairway.
She couldn’t wait any longer. Once he started in on his manuscript, her interruption would be even less welcome. She thought of the beggar woman squinting in the harsh sunlight, one bare and lifted. That would never be her.
Slowly, she withdrew the envelope from her pocket and slid the letter out, the only noise the scratch of Jack’s fountain pen.
“I heard back,” she finally said.
He placed his pen down on the desk without looking up. “Is that right?”
“I’ve been accepted.”
The Main Reading Room on the third floor was the best place for a good late-night cry. Laura had discovered this soon after they’d moved in. She’d always been easily moved to tears, and the vastness of the space, with its fifty-foot ceilings adorned with puffy clouds, was as close as she could get to the fields behind the cottage where she’d retreat upstate when her emotions overcame her. During the day, the room’s gleaming tables, punctuated with desk lamps, were flanked by the curved backs of patrons, reading or making notes with the quiet scratch of a pen. Laura often imagined what it would look like if all their thoughts became visible, the enormous cavern above their heads suddenly crammed with words and phrases, floating in the expanse like bubbles.
Tonight, though, the room was the repository for only her own wretched musings.
She cried not for herself, but for how upset Jack had been to not be able to grant her that one wish: to go to Columbia Journalism School. They simply couldn’t afford it. He had such a pleasant face—open and quick to smile—that to see him distraught made her twice as disappointed in herself for bringing him pain.
When she’d first brought up the idea with Jack earlier that year, he’d approached it with his usual meticulousness. Together, they’d made a list of advantages and disadvantages, and decided that it would only be feasible if she received a full scholarship. Which she had not. As a matter of fact, she’d hadn’t even been accepted, only wait-listed. Until today.
She hadn’t even considered the idea of going back to school until several months ago, when the assistant director of the library, Dr. Anderson, had heard her joke about her life raising children within the library’s walls and suggested she write a piece on the subject for the employees’ monthly newsletter. She’d dashed off a silly article about the difficulty of keeping Pearl and Harry quiet during the day, especially in the summer when they weren’t in school, and how she’d come up with the idea of a ten-minute “stomp” every evening, after the patrons had drained into the streets and the administrative offices had emptied. At her signal, the three of them would leap about the hallways, dancing and singing, Harry running laps and Pearl practicing her yodel, bringing the night watchman sprinting to the second floor to find out what on earth was going on. He’d stood there, panting, hands on his knees, and Laura had worried he might collapse from the fright. After that first time, though, he’d gotten used to the idea, sometimes even joining in, offering up a yowl that echoed down the stairwells and probably frightened the rats rooting around in the basement.
Once Dr. Anderson took over as director, he’d insisted Laura write a monthly column called “Life Between the Stacks,” which she dutifully tapped out on Jack’s typewriter while he was at work. Soon after, she’d seen an announcement in the newspaper about a school of journalism being started at Columbia University, open to both men and women. Upon inquiring, she discovered that students who already held a bachelor’s degree could take just one year of courses. One year. Eighty-five dollars a term. A grand sum, considering Jack’s salary. But still, just two terms. It would be over before they knew it, and then she could get a job at a newspaper and bring in her own salary. After her discussion with Jack, she’d asked Dr. Anderson for a recommendation and been delighted when he’d agreed to provide one.
Laura had learned that she’d been placed on the waiting list a few weeks after she’d mailed in her application. Then, today, she’d learned the good news. A place had opened up and was hers, if she wanted it. But Jack didn’t see it the same way.
“I wish we could afford it so you could go, but maybe this is for the best,” he’d said back in the apartment. “Even if we could, what about the children?”
She’d been expecting the question. “They’re old enough to take care of themselves. If there’s ever a problem, you’re right here in the building.”
“Why not keep doing what you’re doing, Laura?” asked Jack. “Dr. Anderson said just the other day that you’ve got a lovely way with a phrase in the newsletters.”
“Because it doesn’t pay. I want to help so you don’t feel the full burden of our life on you.”
“We always land on our feet. What burden are you talking about?”
She couldn’t mention the beggar; he wouldn’t understand. That she feared if something happened to Jack, she’d also end up on the steps, ragged and dirty, begging for money. She’d seen her parents’ lavish lifestyle curtailed after several financial struggles, although they refused to speak of them, as if by ignoring the problem, it would disappear. Which it had, in a way. Every few months, Laura noticed another empty space in their Madison Avenue town house where an antique bureau had been sold off or a too-bright square in the wallpaper where a severe portrait had once hung.
The latest issue of McCall’s had included an editorial about the restlessness growing among modern women, of the need to have some power over their lives. She felt that restlessness in her bones every day. To live in a building that spilled over with books and knowledge, with its shelves of maps and newspapers from around the world, yet to feel so utterly stifled, was torture.
“I want a passion, like you have for your manuscript.” Maybe he’d understand it if she put it that way.
Look, Laura, I’ll be done with the manuscript by next year. If we wait until then, we can use the advance for your tuition. It’s the least I could do, after everything you’ve done for me.”
She slumped into his lap and put her head on his shoulder. “We can’t do that, silly,” she whispered. “The advance is for you to quit this work and write full-time. But you see, if I’ve graduated by then and have a position, you’d be able to quit no matter what.”
She could see she’d said the wrong thing by the way he blinked twice. That was how well they knew each other, after ten years as man and wife. They’d met when she’d been in New York City in between terms at Vassar, at a party where she’d worried she’d talked too loudly and brashly about the meaning of a Poe poem. She was still getting used to being the youngest in the room and no longer the smartest. Laura had whizzed through high school in three years and been accepted to college at sixteen, urged on by her mother to take hold of every opportunity. But Laura’s time spent back in the city, among greater minds than her own, had brought her quickly down to earth. Embarrassed after her Poe soliloquy at the party, she’d retreated to the kitchen to help wash up. Jack had joined her, drying the champagne coupes, both of them stifling a laugh after the hostess breezed by and warned them to be careful to not break the stems.
“Do be careful,” Jack had said with an affected accent after she left. “They’re quite delicate, you know.” He held one up to the light to check for spots, his enormous hand like a bear’s paw. At which point it had fumbled away from him, landing in the sink in a pile of ice-like shards.
They’d stared at each other in shock before doubling over with laughter. Later that evening he’d called her beautiful, and he didn’t seem to mind that her thick, dark eyebrows made her look sanctimonious (or so said her father) or that her hair was an unruly mess (her father, again).
She caught Jack glancing at his typewriter. He was eager to get back to work, to use up every possible minute before he fell into bed at midnight, exhausted.
“We can ask my parents, maybe.” She knew it wasn’t really an option but wanted to encourage him to consider it from all angles.
He stiffened. Mentioning her parents had been another mis- take. He’d spent the past decade trying to prove himself as a good husband and father. “No. We don’t go to them.”
Jack opened the letter and read it. “It’s eighty-five dollars a term, plus twenty dollars for books.” He placed it back down on the desk and lightly wrapped his arms around her. “It’s out of our reach. Besides, you’ll be older than the other students. By ages.”
She swatted at him, although the words stung more than she let on. “I’m only twenty-nine. Don’t look a day over twenty, they tell me.”
“Twenty-one at the most.”
“It’s only for a year. Quicker than any other type of degree. What if we scrimp?”
But she knew their finances as well as he did. How strange to be barely managing month to month while living in such architectural splendor. The kids were growing so fast, they needed new clothes every other day it seemed. Pearl had come down with a terrible influenza in January, and the doctors’ bills had almost done them in. She was fine now, thank goodness, but they were still catching up. The timing couldn’t be worse.
He took her chin in his hand and gave her a kiss. “I’m sorry I can’t give you the world.”
“Not yet, but soon.” She put as much cheer into her voice as she could muster and left him to his work.
After washing and drying the dinner dishes, she’d checked on the children—Harry was fast asleep and Pearl was in her room playing dress-up with her doll—before stealing out of the apartment and up a flight of stairs to the Main Reading Room to nurse her injury in private. Her father had warned her that if she went against his wishes and married Jack, her life would drastically change. He’d been right about that, but not in the way he’d envisioned. She loved watching as the children grew taller, faster, and funnier every day, and she was lucky to be sharing her life with the man who knew her best.
But still. Time was going by so quickly, and she wanted to do more, be more. The daily chores, the sameness, weighed her down like stones in her pockets. Every day there was yet another dinner to cook, yet another sock to mend.She took a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her eyes, enjoying the stillness of the space, the dark quiet.
A sound up on the walkway that ran along the length of the room above the shelves made her jump. A door opened, and there stood Dr. Anderson, squinting over the railing.
“Mrs. Lyons, is that you?”
She prayed her red eyes wouldn’t be noticeable in the darkened room. Rays of moonlight streamed through the giant casement windows , but not enough to see well by.
“Certainly is, Dr. Anderson.” She had no reason to be here at this hour, and she struggled to come up with an excuse before settling on the truth. “I like the quiet, sometimes.”
“Me, too. I was just finishing up and wanted to enjoy a smoke. Have you been up here yet?”
He motioned for her to take the door beneath him, sandwiched in between the shelves. It led to a spiral staircase that spilled onto the bronze-railed walkway, where she joined him. “Come this way.” She followed him through yet another door, this one implanted in the marble slabs between the second and third window. Inside, a couple of steps led into a tiny, narrow passageway, hardly big enough to fit three people. Before them stood a door with a small, barred window. As he opened it wide, she gasped and stepped forward.
They stood in the night air on a balcony high above Bryant Park, looking west across the city. The full moon had brightened the neighboring buildings, while directly below the trees cast moon shadows along the walkways, as if it were midday.
“I always wondered about these balconies,” she said. “They seem so far away when viewed from the park below.”
“Rumor has it they were meant to eventually be walkways, for an extension of the building that was never realized, but I have a feeling the architects simply liked the way they looked.” He took a drag on his cigarette. When she’d first met him, she’d been cowed by his high forehead and puffy lower lip—he reminded her of the portraits of French aristocrats from the seventeenth century—but his encouragement with the newsletter columns had softened her initial impression, and his recommendation letter had been nothing less than glowing.
“Any news from Columbia?”
She’d hoped he’d forgotten about it, as she’d first mentioned it way back in the spring, when she’d applied. No such luck. “Yes.”
“I was wait-listed at first, but I recently learned that I was accepted.”
“Well, congratulations on that achievement. Jack must be very proud.”
“He is. But I think I’ll wait to go anyway. Now’s not the time.”
“Is it the expense?”
If she said yes, it would seem like she thought Jack’s salary was unfair, which was far from the truth. In her confusion to find the right response, her face became hot. She blushed furiously under Dr. Anderson’s close scrutiny. “No, not at all,” she stammered. “The children need me. I’ll try again next year, when they’re a little older.”
“So you had me write that letter for naught?”
His tone cut to the quick. He was not pleased.
“No, that’s not it at all,” she quickly assured him. “Circumstances changed, you see.”
He put out his cigarette and held the door open for her to retreat back inside. As they walked through the Main Reading Room and into the adjoining Catalog Room, they spoke of the heat wave gripping the city and other mundane matters before she retreated to the apartment to put Pearl to bed.
Three days later, Jack dashed into the apartment to fetch her as she was in the middle of drying the children’s clothes, her arm worn out from cranking wet undershirts through the wringer.
“Dr. Anderson wants to see both of us,” Jack said, his face pale. “Right now, his secretary said.”
Her stomach lurched as she followed him down the hall. Had she shared too much with Dr. Anderson the other night? He’d seemed curt, perhaps angry that she’d asked for a recommendation but not followed through. What had she done?
New York City, 1993
Sadie Donovan leaned against the stone lion named Patience and waited for the line of tourists entering the library to subside. The March sun was bright, offering a tease of warmth, butThe intermittent tugs of wind made it clear that the temperamental spring was still firmly in charge. The chilly air irritated her, as did the crowds storming the building. They came in wave after wave, first taking photos of the two marble lions that flanked the steps—the one across the way was called Fortitude, the names conferred in the 1930s by Mayor LaGuardia as a reflection on Depression-era virtues—then around the revolving door that de- posited them into the foyer like widgets in an assembly line. From there, they’d wander aimlessly, running their greasy hands over the polished walls and jamming up in the entrance to the Reading Room on the top floor as they stared up at the painted ceiling, fish mouths agape.
She almost wished the architects hadn’t put so much fuss behind their design for the building. This ought to be a place for scholars, where the maps and books and artifacts took precedence, not the scrollwork or chandeliers. If it were up to her, she’d allow the gawkers limited access, say seven a.m. to nine a.m. every other Wednesday. If the tourists wanted a museum, they could go to the Met uptown and be pests there. Not on her turf.
Finally, the crowd eased and she headed inside, maneuvering up the stairs to the northeast corner of the library’s top floor, through the heavy wooden door marked BERG COLLECTION. While the Reading Room down the hall offered a vast expanse of desks and chairs under rows of massive windows, the Berg had no windows and only a couple of large tables. Yet it offered up its own quiet sense of majesty, with fluted Corinthian columns flanking Austrian oak panels. Glass cabinets showed off valuable editions and manuscripts by Thackeray, Dickens, and Whitman, generously donated by the brothers Henry and Albert Berg back in the fifties. The room felt intimate, safe.
As she walked into the back-office space, her colleague Claude looked up from his desk.
“Any sign?” she asked.
“No.” His phone rang and he turned away. Sadie settled in, placing her purse in the drawer of her desk. On the other side of the room, a dozen interoffice envelopes sat piled up on their boss’s desk. Sadie supposed she might as well start her day going through them so the administration of running the Berg Collection didn’t fall behind.
Yesterday, Marlene Jenkinson, the Berg’s curator and Sadie’s mentor, hadn’t shown up for work as expected from the week-long trip to New England she’d taken with her husband. When there was no sign of her early that afternoon, Sadie and Claude had approached the director of the library, Mr. Hooper, and been told to carry on with their work—he’d fill them in soon. Sadie had continued working on the master sheet of the Berg Collection’s highlights for an upcoming exhibit, entitled Evergreen, while Claude had been one room over, in the exhibit hall, going over the floor plan with the carpenters.
It wasn’t like Marlene to extend her trip and not tell them, to leave them in the lurch like this. The exhibit was an opportunity for the Berg to shine. It would attract international attention, and they’d all been working doggedly ever since it was announced, spending weekends down in the stacks, going through the rare books and taking inventory.
Over the past four years, Marlene had proved a kind and generous advisor and friend to Sadie. Surely, if something were wrong, Marlene would have reached out and let her know. The mystery around her absence, followed by Mr. Hooper’s curt dismissal, worried Sadie. She considered airing her concerns out loud to Claude after he hung up the phone, but thought better of it. They’d been circling each other with caution the past couple of months, now that their “relationship” or whatever it was called was over, and she didn’t want to show any vulnerability in front of him.
Sadie had always preferred books to people. In high school, she’d eaten her lunch in the library to avoid the confusing maze of social rules in the cafeteria. She’d befriended one of the librarians, who, Sadie’s senior year, urged her to get a degree in library sciences at Rutgers, where Sadie aced every class. After eight years working at the university’s library, she landed a job at the New York Public Library and moved into an apartment in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood, not far from the town house where she’d been raised. It was perfect, with soaring ceilings, a fireplace, and a narrow stairway that led a generous sleeping loft. The first night, she hugged herself with happiness, hardly believing that this was her life.
It was at the New York Public Library that she truly began to shine, manning her station at the reference desk in the Catalog Room next to the old pneumatic tubes that still carried the book requests down to the stacks far below. The questions came fast and furious, and she loved the more difficult ones.
How much horse manure was dumped on the streets in 1880? Sadie scoured the department of sanitation’s books from that year and found the answer: approximately one hundred thousand tons.
When did the Statue of Liberty turn green? Digging through the library’s archives, she came upon letters that described the landmark, looked up artists’ renderings, and compared postcards of the statue over the decades, before pinpointing 1920 as the year it had weathered enough to turn completely green.
The crazier the request, the more fun. Here, at the library, she was the queen of the inquiry, and her colleagues envied her talents. Sadie’s skittishness around strangers, her worry that she was somehow lacking, disappeared at work. Because books didn’t play games. Facts didn’t play games.
Then she was promoted to the Berg Collection. While the library’s vast holdings included several rare book and map collections, the Berg was Sadie’s favorite. It wasn’t the like ReadingRoom, where anyone with a library card could request a book. At the Berg, scholars and researchers were closely vetted. To gain access, they had to describe their research topic, summarize their research to date, and submit a reason for requesting whatever item it was they wanted to see. Which meant the inquiries were more challenging than the general ones down the hall, and also more satisfying. Even if she had to put up with a preening Claude repeatedly tossing his hair out of his eyes like a horse in the dressage ring, it was the perfect job.
None of the envelopes on Marlene’s desk were time sensitive, so Sadie closed them back up and placed them in the in-box. Where could she be?
The phone at her desk rang, and she rushed to pick it up.
“Sadie, I need you to do me a favor.” She recognized the voice of Mr. Hooper. “Marlene was supposed to give a tour for our new board members today. Can you take over? I’d completely forgotten and they’re already here. Then I’ll need to see you and Claude in my office at two thirty.”
“Of course. Where shall I meet the board members?”
“The Trustees Room. They’re waiting.”
The tour group consisted of a tall man with a neatly trimmed beard named Mr. Jones-Ebbing, and a married couple called the Smiths.
Sadie led the trio through the halls, pointing out all her favorite spots: the painted ceiling of a cloudy sky above the back stairwell, the Edward Laning murals depicting the history of the written word in the rotunda, and the view of the foyer from the second-floor balcony. Then down to the stacks where the library’s millions of volumes were housed. “If the shelves were laid end to end, they would measure over eighty miles,” she said.
Mrs. Smith let out a small “Oh, my.”
“This particular branch of the New York Public Library is a research library, not a circulating one,” said Sadie. “That means we don’t lend the books out, they must be consulted on-site. Furthermore, the stacks are not for browsing, they are closed off to the general public. Instead, a patron consults the card catalog and puts in a request, and then the book or books are sent to the Reading Room. The retrieval process hasn’t changed much in all the time the library has been open to the public, since 1911.”
The stacks consisted of seven tiers that rose from the basement level to just below the Reading Room. They reminded Sadie of an ant colony, with library pages dashing up stairs and down the narrow aisles, locating one book among millions within minutes along the steel shelves. She pointed out the conveyer system that carried books up to the patrons waiting in the Reading Room, as well as the dumbwaiter used for oversized works.
Mr. Jones-Ebbing ran his fingers along the spines of the books beside him.
“Don’t touch.” She smiled in an attempt soften the command. These were the people who supported the library with their large donations. Marlene was quite good at coddling the VIPs. Sadie really needed to work on that.
Mr. Jones-Ebbing withdrew his hand and grinned, thankfully not in the least offended. “I just love the feel, and smell, of old books. Can’t help myself.”
“I’m the same way.”
The group emerged into the newly constructed storage area that extended deep under Bryant Park. Sadie proudly reeled off the statistics. “The temperature is kept to sixty-five degrees with forty percent humidity, in order to best preserve the books. There’s even another level below this one.”
She showed how the bookshelves could be moved back and forth with a large wheel, so there was no wasted space. “Near the very back are a couple of small escape hatches—in case of fire—that exit out onto the west side of Bryant Park.” She was surprised to catch Mrs. Smith raise her eyebrows at her husband, unimpressed, as if they were touring a seedy warehouse.
“I prefer the old part of the library better,” said Mrs. Smith.
“We had to expand to accommodate all the books. Although we currently use only one story of the two that were excavated, together they’ll accommodate up to 3.2 million books and half a million reels of microfilm, effectively doubling our storage capacity.”
Polite nodding. They were bored. She was boring them. Sadie racked her brain for something interesting to show them, something unexpected.
“We’ll cut this short and go upstairs. Follow me.”
They took the elevator up back up to the third floor, to the Berg Collection, where Sadie led them over to one of the enclosed bookcases. She pointed through the glass door at the bottom shelf.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith leaned down to stare. “Is that a cat’s paw stuck on the end of a knife?” asked the wife.
Sadie removed a white glove from her pocket and fitted it onto her left hand. She fiddled with the lock on the case and, once it was opened, slipped her gloved fingers carefully beneath the cat-paw letter opener and lifted it out, placing it on one of the tables reserved for researchers. The paw was about four inches long, easily recognizable as that of a gray-and-black tabby. The inscription read, C.D. In memory of Bob 1882.
“This is what Charles Dickens used to open letters,” explained Sadie.
“Is it real?” asked Mrs. Smith, scrunching her turned-up nose. Maybe this had been a mistake.
“Yes,” said Sadie. “The cat, called Bob, was so beloved by Charles Dickens that he had his paw put on a letter opener after he died.”
Sadie stumbled through the explanation as Mr. Jones-Ebbing slid his finger lightly along the sharp end of the blade; she barely stopped herself from giving his knuckles a good rap. “It’s an important artifact, one that tells us a lot about Charles Dickens and the time period he lived in. Back then, taxidermy was all the rage. People made hats out of birds, inkwells out of horses’ hoofs. By doing this, Dickens could still touch the fur of his beloved pet every day.”
What else to show them? Sadie replaced the letter opener and looked around. “Over here is a walking stick that belonged to the essayist and writer Laura Lyons.”
“Oh, gosh, I read all about her in some magazine not long ago,” said Mrs. Smith, her stridency melting. “It’s really hers?”
Finally, a hit. “Yes. She had it with her when she died, in 1941.”
Sadie stared down at the stick, as she had many times since she’d begun working there. Sometimes, after hours, when she was alone, she’d take it out and place it on her bare palm where Laura Lyons’s had once been.
“Simply fantastic,” said Mrs. Smith.
Mr. Jones-Ebbing broke into her thoughts as they retreated back into the hallway. “We were told you’re working on the Berg Collection exhibit. Can you give us any hints of what you’ll be showing?”
“I won’t spoil the surprises, but I can tell you it will be the best that the collection has to offer.”
“Cagey, I see,” he said, eyes twinkling. “Can you at least share how you and your colleagues go about curating a big exhibit like this one?”
“We sift through the collection and allow the objects that capture our attention and imagination to illuminate the theme. In this case, the exhibit will be called Evergreen.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” asked Mrs. Smith.
“The focus is on pieces that have retained their value to scholars and historians over time. While the Berg has some fantastic manuscripts and first editions and diaries and such, we would also like to showcase the quirkier pieces—the ones that have a different kind of story to tell.”
Mr. Jones-Ebbing leaned in with a mock whisper. “I hope the letter opener makes the cut.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret: it does. But you can’t tell a soul.”
He put his fingers to his lips, and they all laughed.
Maybe this wasn’t going so badly after all.
“Once we know the objects we want,” Sadie said, feeling more at ease now, “we go through them and make sure they’re in good shape, figure out how best to highlight them: what page a book should be opened to, what historical context needs to be explained.” They’d reached the door to the Trustees Room. By now, all three board members were gathered around her, listening. “We’ll consult with top scholars to determine what’s the most important thing to mention, what should be revealed. Then there’s all the work with the designers on the exhibit room itself, regarding the exhibit cases, the general aesthetic. What color paint on the walls? What typeface for the labels? How will we control the climate inside the cases? We’ll also put together the catalog, which needs to be in language that’s both suitable for the average reader and accurate.”
“Quite a job. I look forward to the opening,” said Mr. Jones- Ebbing. “Seems like it’s in very capable hands.” He smiled down at her. “I’ll be sure to tell Mr. Hooper that you impressed us all.”
“Lovely to see you, Claude and Sadie. Please, do take a seat.”
The director of the library, Humphrey Hooper, MLS, PhD, spoke with a quick, flat cadence, something Sadie had noted when she first met him a decade ago. Originally from Alabama, he’d somehow mastered a vocal inflection that couldn’t be pinned to particular place yet clearly signaled an upper-class upbringing, like Cary Grant in the old movies.
Since that first meeting, Sadie had risen from assistant librarian to librarian to assistant curator of the Berg Collection by learning everything she could about the library, from the genealogy department to the map room to the prints and photograph department, by staying late and coming in early.
Claude, sitting in the chair next to her, had taken a different approach, taking his superiors out to lunch and wooing them with his charm and wit. He wasn’t handsome—his eyes bulged outslightly, and his upper lip tended to sweat when he got excited—but he had broad shoulders and a thick head of hair, and most of the female librarians swooned when he paid them the slightest bit of attention. He’d shone his light on Sadie during the library’s last Christmas party, kissing her in the back-office area and making her feel breathless and beautiful.
That time of year had always been a dismal one for Sadie. Christmas Eve was when her father had passed away, so even decades later the sight of a pine tree aglow with a riot of primarycolors induced in her an anxious melancholy. It also happened to be Christmas Eve when, sick with dread, she’d rifled through her now ex-husband’s briefcase and found a bill for a credit card she’d 30N never known about, filled with charges to the Washington Square Hotel and several Greenwich Village restaurants. All conveniently located near NYU, where Phillip was a tenured math professor. Even though that was six years ago, the holidays still filled her with an ominous apprehension that the world might fall apart at any minute.
So it really was no surprise that with Claude’s unexpected kiss, even though his breath smelled like Scotch, Sadie’s yuletide clouds of misery had gently evaporated.
He’d been away for a week after that, during which time she’d let her imagination run wild, thinking of them together, wandering around the city, roaming from bookstore to bookstore. After he’d returned, they’d gone out to lunch together and sometimes dinner, where he held her hand a little too long when they said goodbye out on the street. At work, he’d made sweet overtures, like sharing a magazine article on the new Tennyson biography, or passing along the Times crossword once he had finished the paper.
But then, one morning, she’d turned the corner near the administrative offices and spotted him deep in conversation with one of the young pages who worked in the stacks. The girl had thrown her head back and laughed—a high-pitched, ludicrous sound like she was being strangled with sleigh bells—and something in Sadie had shut down, hard. The ups and downs of heartbreak were not for her, no way, not after what she’d already been through with Phillip.
That same day, deep in the stacks of the Berg Collection, Sadie had come across an intriguing title she didn’t remember seeing before: a first edition of Surviving Spinsterhood: The Joys of Living Alone, published in 1896, by Abigail Duckworth. She plucked the thin volume from the Berg’s caged shelves and began reading, turning her back so any passing pages couldn’t see what was in her hand. She’d flown through it, delighted at the timeless advice for successfully maintaining independence as a woman, chock-full of pithy chapter headings like “Solitary Refinement” and “Pleasures of a Single Bed.” For decades, women had lived happily, easily, without a man. That was good enough for her.
Claude had made overtures after that and been rebuffed at every turn. If he brought her the crossword, she’d say she’d already finished it. Articles? Read them. These days, she and Claude had maintained a respectful, if chilly, distance, and whenever loneliness threatened, she’d pluck the book off the shelf and turn to a random page for a quick dose of witty inspiration.
In Mr. Hooper’s office, she smoothed down the voluminous skirt of her dress, hoping Mr. Hooper didn’t find her outfit too frivolous for someone who’d just given a tour to trustees. That morning, she’d chosen a marigold-colored fifties shirtdress with thin orange stripes, admiring the way the full skirt fell away from her hips. It had been one of her most recent finds at the Antique Boutique thrift store, downtown on Broadway. But today, under the bright lights in the director’s office, the yellow zinged brightly. Perhaps too brightly.
She’d gotten used to the various reactions to her daily ensembles, ranging from a surprised “How lovely” to “Well, that’s an interesting outfit.” Sure, her tastes were a far cry from the current craze for Doc Martens and oversized suits, but eventually they’d come back into style and she’d have the last laugh. In the meantime, she liked the idea wearing a piece of history, whether it was a tailored 1930s suit, only slightly faded, or the fifties frock she wore today.
Mr. Hooper consulted his notes. “We’ve had to do some reshuffling. Marlene, as you know, unexpectedly extended her vacation. Permanently, it turns out.”
“What?” Sadie and Claude spoke at the same time.
“She reached out to me yesterday to let me know that she’s taken the job of chief of collections at the Boston Library.”
Sadie sat back, stunned. That explained the unexpected goodbye hug that Marlene gave her the Friday before she left for vacation. As well as her extra-detailed instructions for while she was gone. The decision to take the job, in charge of all the collections at the third largest library in the country, must have been very difficult. Yet it was a big step up, and Sadie just wished Marlene could have felt comfortable confiding in her. But that wouldn’t have been professional, and Marlene was nothing but professional.
“She was poached?” asked Claude.
Mr. Hooper harrumphed. “Yes. She gave her resignation yesterday, and apologized for the short notice but said that it couldn’t be helped. She added that she was certain the two of you could carry on the mantle. I hope she’s right. This is terrible timing, with the Berg Collection exhibit to open in May. We’re in a bind.”
If Marlene was no longer in charge, the logical next choice would be either Claude or Sadie. Sadie had been at the library longer, but Claude had more years in the Berg Collection. It was a toss-up.
“What can we do to help, Mr. Hooper?” asked Claude.
“There’s no time to look for an outside hire, so I’ve talked with the board of directors and we’ve decided that we’d like Sadie to take the helm. For now.”
The director wanted Sadie to become curator of the Berg Collection, one of the most esteemed literary collections in America. Right when they’d be mounting a major exhibition that would be written about in all the newspapers.
“I’m sorry, but why Sadie?” Claude was not amused. “I’ve been working closely with Marlene this past year, day after day. I know what she wants to include.”
“Right,” said Mr. Hooper. “Luckily, we have the final list, so there are no decisions to be made there, as much as we appreciate all your hard work, of course. Sadie’s been at the library longer, and we hope will bring her comprehensive knowledge to bear as we get the exhibit up and running. That means long hours, lots of research and writing, but we believe you both will rise to the occasion.”
“Of course.” Sadie tried to contain her joy. What she really wanted to do was leap to her feet and jump up and down, the way her six-year-old niece, Valentina, did when she won at Connect Four. But that wouldn’t do at all. “I’ll get right on it.”
“Thank you. I want to be clear, this is on a trial basis. I’ll make another, more permanent decision after the exhibit is up and running.” He shifted to address Claude. “Claude, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate all of the hard work you’ve done. And will continue to do.”
What an opportunity. The job went way beyond her current role as a chronicler of old books and literary paraphernalia. As the face of the exhibit, she’d be able to share her love of these historical objects and the emotions they represented to her with the world. She might even get offered the job for good, as the permanent curator of the Berg.
For the next twenty minutes, Mr. Hooper went through the list of exhibit items one by one, in alphabetical order, asking for a progress report. All went smoothly, until he reached the L’s. “I noticed that the Laura Lyons walking stick is on the list of exhibit items,” he said.
In the past five years, there had been a reawakening in interest around Laura Lyons, as her essays were reexamined by feminist scholars and cited for their forward thinking. The few details of the writer’s reclusive life were being mined for clues, which made the walking stick a perfect choice.
But Sadie stiffened as Mr. Hooper continued on. “Since she lived here at one point in her life, I want one of you to go through the library’s archives, see if you can find anything about her that we’ve missed. I’d like to include more than the walking stick. An essay, some original piece of her work, a letter, something that would attract a lot of attention.”
“I’ll do that,” offered Claude.
“No. I’ll do it.” Sadie didn’t care that she was being rude. “I studied her work in college and so have a background that will be useful. Of course, all her private letters and manuscripts were destroyed right after her death. So I’d be surprised if we found anything of interest.”
“In any event, let me know what you discover.”
She avoided meeting his eyes as she assured him she would.
New York City, 1913
Laura and Jack waited outside Dr. Anderson’s office on the second floor like schoolchildren caught cheating in class. She could hear the chimes of the grandfather clock on the other sideof the wall, one of the many refined pieces on display. Dr. Anderson trusted only Jack to wind it each week; no one else was allowed to even touch it. It was as if the clock was the library’s heart, ticking away, and Jack its surgeon.
“Do you have an idea what this is about?” he whispered.
She didn’t mention her encounter with Dr. Anderson in the Main Reading Room a few days back. Certainly, she hadn’t said anything untoward. But maybe he’d been more upset than she’d realized to learn that she was turning down Columbia after he had done her the favor of his recommendation. If they were turned out, they’d have absolutely nowhere to go, and no savings.
Jack had grown up on a thriving orange tree farm in California, attending a private school where he studied Latin and French, literature and philosophy, before throwing away a full scholarship to Stanford and heading to the East Coast with a friend. He wasn’t ready for college, he told his disappointed mother, and might never be. There was more to life, he believed. Plus, Jack wanted to write.
Through connections, he and his mate Billy broke in with a crowd of wealthy young men and women who fancied themselves budding literary giants. Among them, Jack was certainly the most serious about his craft. The rest of the group devoted the majority of their energy to throwing parties for artistic types, like the one where Jack and Laura had met. But Jack had imagined writing a novel contrasting city with country life with that would take the world by storm. He was so close to finishing it, he’d said repeatedly the past several months. Any day now, it would be ready to be submitted. Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if they hadn’t met. He might have already been a shining star in the publishing world, probably on his second or third book. Not winding Dr. Anderson’s clock week after week.
Dr. Anderson appeared and ushered them inside. He didn’t gesture for them to take a seat. “Mr. and Mrs. Lyons, come in. This won’t take long.”
He picked up a thin envelope on his desk and held it out. Jack lifted his hand, but Mr. Anderson shook his head. “This is for your wife.”
Laura took it, looking from one man to the other.
“I have good news,” Dr. Anderson said. “I was able to secure a scholarship for Mrs. Lyons at the Columbia Journalism School for the first term. Just the first, I’m afraid. It was the best I could do.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Sir, I’m sorry. You what?”
“I reached out to the bursar, who’s an old college chum. Apparently there was some scholarship money returned by a student who opted not to enroll, and I suggested it be directed your way.”
“I have a scholarship?” asked Laura.
“You do. For one term. I wish you the best of luck.”
Outside the office, Jack took Laura’s arm and led her down to the basement level. Although the official building superintendent’s office was on the main floor of the library, he’d also commandeered a small storage space in the basement, to be closer to the rest of the staff. They passed the chief engineer and several porters, all taking off their hats and nodding as Laura went by, as if she were the queen of the place, when it was really a testament to Jack’s good standing among them. He was a natural leader, and made a point of knowing the name of everyone who worked for him. Finally, they reached his basement office. Laura shut the door and leaned against it as he made his way behind the desk to his chair.
She quashed any outward show of excitement at the news, unsure of how to react, even as her thoughts raced in a loop: She’d gotten a scholarship. She could go after all.
“When did Dr. Anderson find out about our financial issues?” asked Jack. She could tell he was trying to keep his voice even, like she’d heard him do with an employee who’d disappointed him. Resentment rose up at the idea of being treated like a worker instead of a wife.
“He didn’t. He’d asked me about it a few days ago, but I told him I’d decided not to attend because of the children. You remember he wrote a letter of recommendation?”
“Well, he wanted an update, and that was that.”
“So then he went and arranged a scholarship for you?”
“I don’t believe it myself, to be honest. I know he likes my column, and the recommendation was nice, but I never expected something like this.”
His nose scrunched up in a way that reminded her of Harry when he was miserable about something. She wished he could be happy for her, at this lovely turn of events. But Dr. Anderson was his boss, and she understood that Jack didn’t want his relationship with his superior to become muddied or complicated.
She came around and perched on the edge of his desk, looking down at him and taking his hands in hers. “He did something kind, that was all. I’d like to go, and I’d like to have your support.” She reached down and kissed him, feeling his rough beard on her lips. “You realize what this means, don’t you?”
He shook his head.
“I can get a job at a newspaper next year and write a glowing review of your new book, saying that you’re the next literary sensation. We’ll play up the idea that you’ve been living in the library, scribbling away after hours, a poet who’s soaked up the words of the masters and created a masterpiece himself. It’s a terrific story.”
Jack’s smile spread slowly. “May I point out that it’s a huge conflict of interest, a wife reviewing her husband? It seems that you need some schooling after all. They teach a course in ethics, I hope?”
Laura had already memorized the list of classes: “Training in Reporting and Interviewing, Editing and Rewriting Copy, History of Journalism, and Elements of Law.”
“I suppose the law class will keep you on the straight and narrow. No sensational journalism for my wife.”
“Never, my love.” She’d done it. Somehow, she’d done it. “Never.”
From The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis, with permission from Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Fiona Davis.