REVIEW: The Ghost of Madison Avenue by Nancy Bilyeau
In this unforgettable story, bestselling author Nancy Bilyeau takes readers to J. P. Morgan’s private library in December 1912, when two very different people haunted by lost love come together in an unexpected way.
Helen O’Neill, part of a tight-knit Irish-American family in the Bronx, is only too happy to report to work at the spectacular private library built on Madison Avenue by millionaire financier J. P. Morgan. The head librarian, the brilliant and beautiful Belle da Costa Greene, had hired Helen away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art after she witnessed Helen’s unusual talent with handling artifacts.
Helen soon discovers the Morgan Library is a place like no other, with its secret staircases, magical manuscripts, and mysterious murals. But that’s nothing compared to a person Helen alone sees: a young woman standing on Madison Avenue, looking as if she were keeping watch. In learning the woman’s true link to the Morgan, Helen must face the pain of her own past. She finds herself with a second chance at happiness—if she has the courage.
Dear Ms. Bilyeau,
I enjoyed your novel “The Blue” and was curious what this novella would be about. Ghosts, JP Morgan, and a working class Irish-American family would not be a list of things I would think would go together but darned if they didn’t all end up doing just that.
Mrs. Helen O’Neill has always had the ability to do things with her hands. As a child, her older brother used her skills to earn a few extra pennies from other children until their Irish immigrant mother saw it. Taking her tiny daughter aside, she fearfully impressed on her the need to hide this ability that linked her to the aes sidhe. Her father might rage against this superstition, and as devout Catholics they all should, but Helen heeded what her mother said and hide this while longing to be just like all the other girls. The one person who understood her and with whom she could be exactly herself is the person she mourns most – her husband who died during the Spanish-American war.
But her abilities also eventually lead to her being employed at JP Morgan’s private library – home to his fabulous collection of art. Soon despite enjoying her work there, Helen begins to feel a sense of impending dread. Then she begins to see a young woman on the streets who seems to know her but who disappears before Helen can talk to her. Who is she, why is she showing up again and again, and what will Helen do about it?
Even though this is a (slightly longer) novella, it’s packed with story. I could see the busy streets of New York City that Helen traverses; sit in on her conversations with Belle da Costa Green; marvel at the magnificent building that Morgan had built for the even more amazing art collection he had amassed; wait with Helen on the rare opportunity she had to see her sister, a Dominican nun at Corpus Christi monastery; and witness her first meeting with the man she still misses and loves.
After being leisurely yet also richly laid out, everything comes together in the end. Family and love triumph to give Helen a bittersweet something she never thought she’d have again. Will this repeat? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But she’s experienced something rare and precious and I cried with her in her joy and about how her family truly loves and values her. B
@Jayne, Following your review, I read this last night. The author’s descriptions of the cityscape, Morgan library interior, and the characters made them come alive for me, but the story itself left me sad and blue.
@LML: I apologize if I didn’t make it clear enough about the ending but I was trying to avoid spoilers.
Oh, no apology necessary. I found the entire book elegiac despite it pulling me right along. The author’s afterword was really interesting, especially regarding Miss da Costa Greene. I realized that I previously read the author’s Dreamland, where all of the good parts somehow did not add up to a satisfying reading experience for me.
What a truly charming novella. I had to read up a little bit about jp morgan and his first wife. Very sad for those two. I’d like to think they met up in the afterlife . And to know that Belle was a librarian for the Morgans. What an interesting life she must have lived. Thank you for the review.
I also purchased The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau based on my love for TGoMA.
@Kris: I haven’t read it but this book is about Belle da Costa Green – “The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
A sequel to “The Blue” is due out this spring.