One of the things that makes a piece of fiction (especially, I’d argue, historical fiction) engaging and memorable, is a strong sense of place. Camille di Maio’s third novel, The Way of Beauty, especially shines in this area. It is not only a New York novel, but a novel that very specifically pays tribute to a particular Manhattan landmark, the old Penn Station built in 1910 and demolished in 1963. The novel’s main character, Vera, is the child of German immigrants growing up in poverty in the early 1900s while the station is being built — her father one of the labourers who helps dig out the underground tunnels for this new marvel of 20th century transportation. Half a century later, Vera watches as this architectural wonder is destroyed in the name of progress. Along the way she falls in love with Angelo who runs the newsstand, forms a fierce friendship with the suffragette Pearl, becomes a mother to Alice and a substitute mother to Will, and lives out her life, loves and passions in the shadow of Penn Station.
While Vera’s story, and the stories of those around her, are interesting, Penn Station is the real star of this novel, and I was fascinated after reading the book to look up some of the history about it and learn how its demolition, and the resulting protest, paved the way for New York City to rethink its treatment of historic buildings and halt the process of tearing down landmarks in the name of progress. A good book should feel like it is deeply rooted in a real place and time, and Vera’s story in The Way of Beauty certainly achieves that.