The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway is an historical fiction novel set in New York City’s Gilded Age. It’s Callaway’s debut novel and is told through the eyes of Virginia Loftin better known as Ginny. Her family is highly artistic with each of her sisters, except one who’s a teacher, and her brother engaged in some sort of artistic pursuit. Ginny is a writer, one sister is a pianist, one sister is a milliner to New York’s high society, and her brother is a painter but works as a salesman. Over the course of two years the reader follows Ginny as she not pursues her dream of being a professional writer and becoming involved with a group of other artists but also the two men she loves: one her lifelong best friend Charlie, an illustrator, and John Hopper, the leader of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society.
What drew me to pick up the book was the title. Thinking the book would be about the artists society led me to believe it would primarily be Ginny exploring the beauty and pain of creativity and the high probability of drama a group of fellow creative types is bound to bring. That and the fact the main character was a writer although I tend to stay away from books where the main character is a writer. In my opinion it’s a little too convenient when a writer writes about a writer. But I gave this one a chance because of the artists society aspect.
Unfortunately the book wasn’t about the artists society or art. Instead it’s a rather poorly constructed love triangle with two underdeveloped love interests and a grating main character. Her first love Charlie literally shows up at convenient plot points and exits just as quick serving only to moan on and on about how he made a mistake. I have no idea why she loves him other than they grew up together. Ginny’s other love interest, John, is slightly more developed, however, his characterization is inconsistent and her wishy washy feelings toward him gets old very fast. For someone who supposedly wants a husband who will be supportive of her writing career she seems to not care when John demonstrates genuine support. She waffles between independent-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man to wanting nothing more than to be married. While I’m not opposed to romance or a book focusing on it, something not completely uncommon in historical fiction, why it bugged me in The Fifth Avenue Artists Society was how much Ginny and her sisters vacillate. Also, the way all the romances were developed felt forced and inorganic.
Actually pretty much everything in this book was forced and inorganic. The plot was forced and I had a giant problem with a plot twist thrown in toward the last third of the book. It didn’t make sense at all and comes out of left field. Yes, there are a few subtle hints to suggest something is afoot, but it doesn’t come across as natural. Also it throws off the tone of the book. It goes from a fluff, Little Women-esque piece to dark and serious which it fails at. Perhaps it fails because one of the people involved in the plot twist is a character who is in the background in one scene very early in the book.Or because the book is told through Ginny’s eyes she wasn’t there for the event which prompts the twist.
As I alluded to above, I had problems with the characters, in particular Ginny. Like so much of this book, her decisions and actions felt forced. I found her even more irritating after the plot twist. Without spoiling anything, I was incredibly angry with her as she couldn’t understand why her family was justifiably angry with a member of their family involved with the twist. She was mad at them for not understanding the possible other side of things yet she refused to see things from their point of view. All of the supporting characters are one dimensional and are shoehorned into the novel. There are a lot of them as Ginny comes from a large family and with virtually everyone paired off it adds more players to the mix. I don’t know if there was some restriction put onto Callaway by her editor or publisher, but there needed to be more room in the novel to develop the characters.
Since this is historical fiction, I’ll touch about the feeling of accuracy I got from the book. While Callaway certainly did her research, she mentions in her acknowledgements a bulk of the book is based upon her ancestors and includes some documents from her family’s history, the language used and attitudes of the characters comes across as period inappropriate. They didn’t feel modern, just not 1890s middle class and not from people whom frequently hobnob with the upper crust of New York society. Oddly enough it felt more like the 1920s in how people spoke and acted. I guess Callaway decided since all the characters are artists they aren’t going to act in line with societal norms. That’s fine. Believe me I don’t want or need cookie cutter and get tired of seeing characters fall into supposed norms in historical, it was just…off. But the way the characters dressed, the architecture of the time period, and other setting details felt very authentic. Callaway also references a lot of plays, pieces of music, popular authors and books, literary magazines, publishers, and historical figures the Loftin family would possibly have interacted with, and painters popular at the time.
Overall, though, I found The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway to be disappointing. The characters weren’t compelling or consistent and the plot was boring and nonsensical at the end. On a scale of one to five pencils I’m giving it one and half pencils.