Joy Callaway’s “The Fifth Avenue Artists Society”- A Beautiful Historical Tragedy

Spoiler Alert: May contain spoilers for Joy Callaway's "The Fifth Avenue Artists Society"

My Dearest Readers!

While originally I had intended to focus the next review to be on “Ace of Spades” by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. However, for some reason I decided to read Joy Callaway’s “The Fifth Avenue Artists Society” instead. I bought the book a few months ago and then forgot all about it until I came across it while rearranging my shelf a few days ago. I thought reading this would be a nice change from the young adult thrillers and Dark Academia books I have been reading recently. While the first few pages started off slow, I was hooked.

“The Fifth Avenue Artists Society” is a fascinating glimpse into the artistic society of 19th century New York. The novel is set in the late 1800s New York and revolves around family of artists and writers, characters which are based on the author’s own ancestors. The protagonist, Virginia Loftin, is a writer who hopes to get published by her dream publisher. The novel follows Virginia and her siblings, an artist, a musician, a milliner and a teacher, as they attempt to be recognised for their talents and survive in a time period where women’s accomplishments were thought to be inferior to men’s.

While the novel itself is a historical romance, the focus of the story is not on the romance between the protagonist, Virginia, and the two men she falls in love with but rather on Virginia’s growth as a writer and her journey towards publication. Much of Virginia’s growth as a writer is influenced by her failed romances and the company of artists and writers that she meets at an artists society in a Manhattan salon, the titular Fifth Avenue Artist’s Society.

The novel also explores the problems faced by women artists and writers in the 1800s. Both Virginia and her sister Alevia, who is a musician, face significant prejudice while trying to be recognised for their talents. The novel also explores how many women of the time period were forced to give up their ambitions and artistic pursuits to focus on marriage and domestic responsibilities. One of the characters friends, Cherie Smith, reveals the she has been forced to give up her painting after marriage:

“He’s hardly permitted me to pick up a brush since our wedding day, but over the past few weeks, my heart has been so heavy that i knew if I couldn’t paint, my anxiety would just burst it”. (Joy Callaway, “The Fifth Avenue Artist’s Society”)

Cherie’s fate is referred to repeatedly throughout the novel and affects both Virginia and Alevia’s views on marriage, passion and relationships. Virginia deeply fears ending up like Cherie and this complicates her romance with John Hopper, the man she falls in love after she is abandoned by her first love.

However, the story is far from a simple social commentary. Joy Callaway’s style of writing is extremely immersive. She delves deep into her characters’ lives to explore the nature of love, passion, art and betrayal in a series of twists and events that keep the reader hooked throughout the narrative. Her descriptions of late 19th century New York and of the society itself are incredibly vivid and serve to draw the reader into the story.

The book was definitely worth the read!


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