Home is Where the Library Is: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

A woman dressed in a bright yellow dress walks while reading through a grand lobby with well-lit doors and windows behind her.

by Cherise T.

I have a favorite photo of my kids where my son is wearing his baseball cap backwards and my daughter is wearing a poncho as a skirt. Today, my son’s visors often still point in reverse and my daughter never misses the opportunity to transform an article of clothing into something original and extraordinary. 

Where, you ask, was this photo taken? In front of the New York Public Library, the revered Fifth Avenue building guarded by two marble lions. A library with an eight-room apartment on the mezzanine.

Having never read a novel by the popular historical fiction author Fiona Davis, I was attracted to the plotline of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, not only because of my love for libraries but because I have entertained the fantasy of enjoying unlimited access to stacks and stacks of books. Deep, dark stacks with first editions and handwritten notes by famous authors. One of my favorite books in the HCLS collection is The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems because I can sink into Dickinson’s creative process and believe, for phrases at a time, that I am sharing a word journey into an otherwise fathomless mind. 

Told through the dual lenses of 1993 and 1913-18, The Lions of Fifth Avenue reads both as historical fiction and mystery. The plot weaves the interconnected stories of a family with a deep multigenerational connection to the New York Public Library. In 1993, Sadie Donovan strives for an ever more significant leadership role as an NYPL librarian and curator. In 1913, Sadie’s grandmother, Laura Lyons, aspires to be a journalist in a society where women’s professional opportunities were limited. Whereas Sadie works at the NYPL, Laura actually lives there in the apartment reserved for the family of the superintendent of the NYPL, who happens to be Laura’s husband, Jack. Laura and Jack live in the apartment with their children, Henry and Pearl. Both Sadie and Laura walk up the same steps and pass the same stone lions, and they face parallel hurdles in their careers and their romantic relationships. They share devotion to family and an insatiable attraction to investigation and knowledge. And Sadie and Laura contend with the theft of treasured library materials, setting them up as witnesses and suspects. 

Although the protagonists of the novel are fictional, the framework has historical roots. At one time, NYPL superintendents resided in the library, and the first superintendent who lived in the Fifth Avenue building raised children there. True as well is the unfortunate fact that rare books have been stolen from the library over the years. Fascinated by NY’s architectural landmarks, Davis writes novels revolving around different city buildings including the Barbizon Hotel, Dakota apartments, Chelsea Holtel, and Grand Central Terminal. Her writing has a real feel for New York City, and the plot twists in The Lions of Fifth Avenue make it a page turner. Climb the stairs between the lions, settle in to live in a library for a bit, and see if you can solve a few mysteries. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

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