Goodreads: The Gallery
Published: June 2016
In 1928, Martha goes to work as a kitchen maid in the house of Mr. Sewell, a rich newspaper magnate. But mystery surrounds her. Sewell’s wife Rose is kept locked upstairs, apparently suffering from mental illness. And yet Rose keeps sending down paintings from her renowned gallery. Is Rose trying to send a message? From the author of Under the Egg.
From the opening pages, it’s impossible not to wonder if this book is truly meant for middle-grade readers. It begins with the testy musings of a 100-year-old Martha, who makes biting comments about the young reporter who comes to visit her and suggests a certain bitterness that older readers might understand but younger readers mighht not. When Martha begins her story proper, set in the Roaring 20s, tales of lurid love affairs, drunken fathers, drugged individuals, and madness fill the pages. It culminates in a true 1920s raging party, with a list of famous individuals passed out on the floor and a man shown cheating on his wife. I suspect that it’s Martha’s age that has this book labelled as MG; otherwise I think it would have landed in the YA section.
Surprisingly, however, I found this book pretty dull. It centers around the mystery of a seemingly mad wife trapped in her own home and sending messages through her paintings. Good stuff, right? But the plot moves so slowly and the clues are often so clunky that I found I was not much interested. For instance, there’s a mad wife and a servant in love with her employer. How do we discover this? A copy of Jane Eyre is lying around. You might as well have hit the reader over the head with a copy of Bronte’s book, that’s how awkward it felt.
This kind of mystery-making, along with the not-so-subtle dropping of names from Sacco and Vanzetti to Cole Porter made it seem as if the book was trying just a little too hard to be all historical fictiony. It was enough that Martha works for a newspaper man, so mentions of Herbert Hoover’s campaign and Martha’s neighborhood’s support for the opposition, Al Smith, who suffers from anti-Catholic prejudice (neatly tied in with Martha and her neighborhood’s own Catholicism) work into the tale. But then the party list and some of the other characters almost become a who’s who of 1920s America and it borders on the unbelievable, seeing as Sewell himself generally hosts no company yet suddenly becomes the center of famous America.
Maybe two-thirds of the way through the pacing picks up and I finally found myself interested, but just when things were getting good, the author abruptly switches gears. [Spoiler for the end.] The entire book Martha has been working to solve the mystery of Rose and to convince others that there is a mystery to be solved. Then one day she walks back into the house and all the servants are sitting there having solved the mystery. No explanation offered. One can imagine what might have happened, but it is never explained. How disappointing!
I enjoyed Under the Egg, so I plodded steadily on through this new offering from Fitzgerald, but I never imagined the 1920s could be so dull.