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The Spectacular


The Spectacular

Best known for writing books that center on historical landmarks in New York City, Fiona Davis returns with perhaps the most famous building of all: Radio City Music Hall, where the dazzling, glamorous and perfectly in-sync Rockettes delight audiences each holiday season. But few people know that their early years were nearly outshone by a monstrous bomber plaguing the Big Apple. In THE SPECTACULAR, Davis draws these two vivid, striking moments together in a novel as brilliant and shadowy as the city itself.

Nineteen-year-old Marion Brooks has always stolen the spotlight from those around her. Beautiful, talented and charismatic, she dominates any “stage” without ever meaning to do so. Although she has found her passion in dance, her widowed father is desperate to see her married to the respectable Nathaniel, to whom he has promised work at the Metropolitan Power Company, where he serves as vice president of personnel administration. Marion loves Nathaniel and can envision a future with him, but she also feels stifled by her father’s put-downs of the arts, especially after learning that her own mother dreamed of being an actress. On a whim, Marion auditions to be one of the most famous and popular dancers in the world: a Radio City Rockette. No one is more surprised than her when she lands the role.

"Written with a dash of mystery, a hearty helping of absolutely perfect historical fiction, and a premise so alluring that it feels like it should require a ticket, THE SPECTACULAR is yet another thrilling, meticulously crafted work from an author who never shies away from an unforgettable finale."

As Marion soon learns, being a Rockette is far from being a “chorus girl,” as her father refers to her work. It is more like joining an army of fastidious, dedicated and synchronized artists, each of whom must learn to work together to create the illusion that is the Rockettes --- from the kick lines to the falling soldiers and even the rotating lines. Everything from her measurements (34”-24”-34.5” with six-inch wrists) to her daily life (three weeks on, one week off) is regimented and accounted for.

With two rehearsals and four performances a day, this lifestyle is not for everyone, not least of all a girl whose father is adamantly against it and whose soon-to-be-fiancé is not so eager to wait around. But Marion finds that she thrives in the rehearsals, learning for the first time what it means to work hard, conform and harmonize with others. While the act of fitting in (literally, in some dance moves) would shadow and diminish others, it only makes Marion blossom, her health and mental well-being never so robust as it is now.

But disaster is simmering in the city. For the last 16 years, a bomber has targeted first the Metropolitan Power Company and then major landmarks, including Radio City Music Hall. Despite the same (assumed) man doling out the same dangerous acts and menacing letters year after year, the police are no closer to catching him than they were when he first began placing bombs around the city. Because her father works at the madman’s main target, Marion is accustomed to the news playing in the background of her life. But when the bomber takes aim at Radio City Music Hall again --- on the very night that she is set to give the most crucial, meaningful performance of her life --- he takes a life, one of the most important ones to Marion, and her dreams seem dashed.

Although she is overwhelmed by her grief and her father’s disappointment in her career, which is unrelenting even in the face of tragedy, Marion knows two things. First, she spotted the bomber before he fled the scene, and she feels confident that she can help the police identify him. Second, a recent doctor acquaintance she met on a failed double date has just the skills necessary to end the hunt for the Big Apple Bomber once and for all.

Peter Griggs is a tall, ungainly man who holds none of the confidence of other men his age --- particularly those who, like him, recently graduated from Harvard. But when Marion witnesses him de-escalating an uncomfortable customer situation in an exclusive restaurant, she senses that he is gifted, almost supernaturally so, in the art of profiling. This is a common word to us now, but it was underexplored and downright laughed at in the 1950s. Still, given her closeness to the case, Marion finds a way to convince the police to meet with Peter and allow him to give his take on the bomber’s identity. While he cannot identify the man by name, he arrives at some significant conclusions, most notably that the bomber would have worked for the Metropolitan Power Company in the 1930s. This means that, along with her father, Marion, Peter and the police can solve the case.

Writing in alternating chapters between Marion’s youth as a Rockette and her 55-year-old self (unwillingly) attending a reunion show, Davis pens a riveting and dazzlingly glamorous portrait of 1950s New York --- the mystique and beauty, but also the shadowy underbelly. The result is a full-throated, fully realized and perfectly populated novel that reads almost like a whole world unveiling before your eyes, not unlike those first heady moments of a show.

It feels reductive to call Davis’ writing effortless --- as if every line, development and historical fact isn’t scrupulously pored over and decided --- yet that is the experience of reading her work. Her worlds, her characters and their dramas are so expertly crafted, so thoroughly immersive, that you almost lose the sense of the novel being written and instead encounter it as a living, breathing bit of history. That she then manages to weave the dazzling history of the Rockettes with a tragic story more or less forgotten in today’s time is a testament to her skill, a talent that only continues to grow with each spectacular book.

Written with a dash of mystery, a hearty helping of absolutely perfect historical fiction, and a premise so alluring that it feels like it should require a ticket, THE SPECTACULAR is yet another thrilling, meticulously crafted work from an author who never shies away from an unforgettable finale.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 16, 2023

The Spectacular
by Fiona Davis

  • Publication Date: July 23, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 0593184068
  • ISBN-13: 9780593184066