Book Review of The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

This historical fiction novel has two timelines: one in 1913-14 New York City and one in 1993 New York City. In 1913, Laura Lyons lives with her husband Jack, her son Henry, and her daughter Pearl above the New York City Public Library where Jack works. Though she cares about her children and her husband, Laura finds herself wanting more out of her life. She pursues a degree at Columbia University’s journalism school even though her professors won’t let female students write about serious topics.

In 1993, Sadie Donovan works as the curator for the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. The Berg Collection consists of rare manuscripts and other items that belonged to famous authors. Sadie is Laura Lyons’s granddaughter but her mother Pearl never talks about living at the library. Through Sadie we learn that her grandmother became a famous essayist, and Sadie is looking for more material on Laura Lyons to include in an exhibition of the Berg Collection.

Both timelines have a string of rare book thefts in common. The New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue location doesn’t lend out books to patrons, so only a few people can access its books at any time.

Fiona Davis introduces the reader to some of the library’s most precious objects through the thefts. During the 1913-14 timeline, a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass goes missing, along with Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1993, the last volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries as well as a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne disappear.  

As the mystery behind the thefts continues, Fiona Davis shows what it meant to be an independent woman in 1913 and in 1993.

A friend encourages Laura to join the Heterodoxy Club, a real women’s club that met every other week in Greenwich Village. The club embraced some ideas that were radical for the time, such as access to birth control for women. Laura notes that the women’s “stories were so varied, the family origins fascinating…yet somehow they’d all ended up in this one place, united not for a common cause, but simply to be able to speak their minds freely without the disapproval of husbands and fathers.” Laura has to decide how she will balance her desire for independence with the responsibilities of having a family.

Sadie is living the independent life that Laura dreams of. Instead of her husband working at the library, Sadie holds the prestigious position of curator of the Berg Collection. She is divorced with no children, though she has a beloved niece. She has more free time than Laura to devote to the library thefts and works with a private investigator to try and recover the lost items.

Although the dual timeline has been somewhat overdone in recent historical novels, it felt natural for Laura and Sadie’s stories to be connected because they were close family members. Much of the book is difficult to discuss without spoilers. The mystery of the thefts was well done, especially since Davis is not a mystery writer. Some of the characters’ actions, particularly in the Laura Lyons timeline, felt sudden. Certain topics like suicide should be treated with more care or not included at all.

My favorite parts of the book centered around the New York City Public Library’s books and other rare objects. While the author’s note makes it clear that Laura Lyons and her family are fictional, the Berg Collection is real. I highly recommend looking up the collection online. I’ve included more information about the collection and a video of its rare objects below.

Overall, I enjoyed The Lions of Fifth Avenue and will likely read more books by Fiona Davis.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

At 4:45pm on Saturday March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of a factory in New York City. Workers had finished their work on shirtwaists–the women’s blouses produced in the Triangle Factory–and were ready to collect their paychecks. They were interrupted by shouts of “Fire!” Samuel Bernstein, one of the managers, tried to throw buckets of water on the fire, but the material used to make shirtwaists was highly flammable.

Bernstein got nowhere with the water buckets. When he attempted to turn on a fire hose, no water came out. He and the women working on the eighth floor realized they had to escape the flames. They pushed each other toward one of the exits, but the door was locked. Finally, someone came with a key and opened it. One of the girls used the telephone to warn the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, on the tenth floor.

Escape Attempts

Horse-drawn fire engines raced to the scene. Unfortunately, their hoses could not reach the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch building where the factory was located. Some people from the eighth floor managed to get down from the stairwells to safety. Workers on the tenth floor tried to escape the flames by climbing up on the roof. The quick thinking of a professor teaching a class in the building next door saved them. When he saw the flames, the professor and his students set up ladders so that employees could climb from the factory roof to the roof of the school.

Trapped Workers

Not everyone could find an escape route. Some tried climbing onto the fire escape, but it collapsed under the weight of so many people. With the flames trapping them inside, many workers decided to jump out the factory windows. Firefighters held nets below in an attempt to catch the jumpers. The nets weren’t strong enough. No one who jumped survived. After half an hour, the firemen managed to stifle the flames by taking their hoses inside the building. By that time, 146 people were dead.

At ten feet tall, the building was one of New York’s skyscrapers. Hundreds of people worked long hours at the sewing machines, sitting elbow-to-elbow and receiving little pay. Most of the workers were female Italian and Russian immigrants, though some men worked there, too.

Call for Fire Safety in Factories

After the tragedy, many people called for better safety standards for factories as well as better working conditions. Survivor Pauline Cuoio Pepe said, “We [the survivors] didn’t sleep right, always afraid. We were also angry. ‘What did they close the door for? What did they think we were going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?’”

Owners Harris and Blanck were criticized for not following fire safety procedures. They kept doors locked while workers were inside, the fire hoses didn’t work, stairways were too narrow, and the fire escape didn’t reach the ground. New York State government officials set up a commission to study factory safety. Among other improvements, the commission required tall buildings to have sprinkler systems. Many laws passed to increase the safety of workers in factories as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As committee member Frances Perkins stated years later “they [the Triangle Factory workers] did not die in vain and we will never forget them.”