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The Magnolia Palace Summary and Study Guide

Step into the world of intrigue, mystery, and historical fiction with Fiona Davis’s sixth novel, The Magnolia Palace.

This New York Times bestseller and Goodreads Choice Award nominee, published in 2022 by Dutton, takes inspiration from the Henry Clay Frick House and real-life historical characters to unravel the secrets behind Frick’s mysterious death.

As a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, Davis is celebrated for her historical mystery novels that revolve around New York City’s iconic structures.

Plot Summary
Book Club Questions
Characters List

The Magnolia Palace Summary

The Magnolia Palace commences in 1919 in New York City with 21-year-old Lillian Carter posing nude for a sculptor under the alias Angelica. Lillian is a renowned artists’ model, and sculptures based on her likeness are dispersed throughout the city.

Despite her fame as Angelica, Lillian’s career is at a standstill, and her mother, Kitty, has recently passed away. One day, upon returning home, Lillian stumbles upon the murder of her landlord’s wife, and although she had no part in it, the authorities suspect her involvement.

Following her encounter with the authorities in her apartment, Lillian manages to escape through the bathroom window. She makes her way down Fifth Avenue, looking for a place to lie low. As she strolls, she comes across a grand mansion with a sculpture of Angelica above the entrance, catching her eye. Suddenly, a servant appears and mistakes Lillian for a job applicant. The servant drags her inside and Lillian finds herself standing in the midst of the mansion’s grandeur.

Lillian, being well-versed in art and art history, strikes up a conversation with the servant, using her knowledge to impress and persuade him. Soon, she manages to talk her way into the position of personal secretary to Helen Clay Frick, who is the heiress and daughter of the mansion’s owner. Lillian reasons that taking up residence in the mansion and working for Helen is the perfect way to evade the police who are searching for her.

Interwoven within the novel is a second storyline that occurs in 1966, introducing Veronica Weber as the protagonist. Veronica is a model who has traveled to the Frick Collection in the Frick Mansion for a photo shoot, leaving her home in London where she resides with her mother and sister, Polly, who has developmental disabilities. Veronica aspires to earn enough money modeling in New York to pay for her sister’s care back in London.

During the shoot, Veronica becomes embroiled in a disagreement with the photographer, who subsequently throws her out of the shoot. Feeling upset and frustrated, she decides to wander through the mansion to calm herself down. However, she quickly realizes that the models and crew have departed, and she is now locked inside the mansion.

As Veronica tries to find a way out, a snowstorm suddenly hits the city, leaving her trapped inside with no power. With no means of communication, and nobody aware of her presence, Veronica is left to fend for herself in the eerie, desolate mansion.

Despite being alone in the mansion, Veronica soon discovers that she is not entirely by herself. Joshua Lawrence, an archivist for the Frick Collection, had fallen asleep at his desk and is now stranded inside the mansion with her.

As they explore the mansion, Veronica stumbles upon some clues that suggest the existence of a scavenger hunt within the mansion, and she shares her findings with Joshua. Intrigued by the possibility of unraveling the mystery, the two of them join forces to solve the puzzle.

As the snowstorm continues to rage on outside, they spend the following day pursuing their scavenger hunt while they wait for rescue. Together, they explore the dark corridors of the mansion, piecing together clues and riddles that lead them to various locations within the mansion. Despite the growing sense of danger and unease, they remain determined to uncover the truth behind the scavenger hunt.

As the story takes us back to the year 1919, Lillian Carter, a struggling artist known as Angelica, finds herself agreeing to work as a personal secretary for Helen Clay Frick, daughter of the mansion owner and steel magnate, Mr. Frick. Lillian has her sights set on moving to California to pursue her acting career, and working for Helen for a month would provide her with the necessary funds to make her dream a reality.

During her time at the mansion, Lillian meets Mr. Frick, a man known for his passion for art collection, and he privately makes her an offer that could be difficult to refuse. He offers Lillian additional money to help facilitate a courtship between Helen and Richard Danforth, a suitor he has chosen for his daughter. Lillian agrees to assist Mr. Frick with his request, and soon enough, she finds herself playing the role of a matchmaker.

As Lillian helps Richard and Helen’s courtship along, the two begin to develop feelings for one another, and their relationship soon progresses towards marriage. However, when Helen goes out of town and leaves Richard a scavenger hunt to explore the mansion and its art collection, Lillian can’t help but assist him with the clues. As they spend more time together, their feelings towards one another begin to blossom into something more than just a friendship. With their growing attraction to each other, they begin to question the boundaries of the courtship, wondering if they should follow their hearts or stay true to their obligations.

As the story unfolds, Richard and Lillian’s relationship takes a sharp turn as Richard withdraws from his courtship with Helen and asks Lillian to move to Boston with him. Lillian is torn between her feelings for Richard and her dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood. She fears that if she reveals her past as Angelica to Richard, he may reject her.

When Lillian finally confesses her secret to Richard, her worst fears come true, and he ends their relationship. As Lillian tries to move on with her life and pursue her dreams of stardom in Hollywood, she is faced with a harsh reality. A producer connection reveals his plans to use Lillian’s past as Angelica for sordid plots, effectively putting an end to her acting career before it even begins.

Lillian is left with a difficult decision to make – whether to continue to pursue her dreams or to let go of her aspirations and try to salvage what is left of her personal life. With the odds stacked against her and her past threatening to ruin her future, Lillian must find the strength within herself to overcome the obstacles in her path and forge a new path forward.

In a shocking turn of events, Mr. Frick’s death is not the end of the mansion’s troubles. When the Magnolia Diamond, a precious family treasure, goes missing shortly after his death, suspicion falls on everyone in the household, including Lillian. To make matters worse, someone has tampered with Mr. Frick’s drinking water, causing his death to be reclassified as murder. As tensions rise and accusations fly, Lillian is soon on the run from both the police and the Frick family. With the mysteries of the diamond’s disappearance and Mr. Frick’s death still unsolved, Lillian must clear her name and find the true culprit before it’s too late.

In 1966, Veronica and Joshua discover a hidden treasure trove in the Frick Mansion, which includes the Magnolia Diamond, a precious family heirloom. Veronica, motivated by her desire to bring her sister Polly home, secretly pockets the diamond. The next morning, they are caught by none other than Helen Frick, the heiress to the mansion and owner of the diamond.

As they try to explain themselves, they realize that they have stumbled upon a larger conspiracy surrounding the Frick family and their secrets. Helen enlists their help to solve the mystery of the diamond’s theft and Mr. Frick’s death, leading them on a thrilling adventure through the mansion’s secret passages and hidden rooms. But as they get closer to the truth, Veronica must decide whether to keep the diamond and risk being caught, or come clean and face the consequences.

Veronica’s guilt and shame linger as they leave the Frick Mansion, and she begins to question her actions. Meanwhile, Joshua becomes increasingly curious about the events that led to Mr. Frick’s death and the disappearance of the Magnolia Diamond.

He starts to piece together clues and discovers that Lillian, who had been hiding in the mansion in 1919, may have been falsely accused of the theft and murder. Joshua shares his findings with Veronica, and they both become determined to clear Lillian’s name and solve the mysteries surrounding the Frick family. However, as they delve deeper, they find themselves in danger and must race against time to uncover the truth before they become the next victims.

As Helen, Veronica, and Joshua delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding Mr. Frick’s death and the missing Magnolia Diamond, they realize they need to seek out Lillian, who may hold crucial information. They eventually track her down in upstate New York, where she reveals a shocking theory about who may be responsible for the crimes.

Lillian’s suspicions fall on none other than Helen’s mother’s private secretary, Miss Winnie. Despite Helen’s initial disbelief, they decide to visit Miss Winnie at her nursing home, where she ultimately confesses to both crimes, revealing a stunning and unexpected conclusion to the long-standing mysteries.

After years of estrangement, Helen and Lillian finally reconcile and let go of the past. Inspired by the Magnolia Diamond’s legacy, Helen uses the gem to fund a scholarship program. Joshua, who had been struggling to finance his graduate studies, becomes the scholarship’s inaugural beneficiary. Meanwhile, Veronica, now employed as Helen’s new private secretary, brings her family, including her beloved sister Polly, to live in America. Together, they embark on a new chapter of their lives, filled with hope and promise for the future.

As Lillian walks through the halls of the Frick Collection, she can’t help but feel a sense of awe and nostalgia. It’s been years since she’s been here, but this time it’s different. Helen had invited her for a special unveiling, and Lillian can’t wait to see what it is. As they make their way to the sculpture section, Lillian’s heart starts to race. What could it be? When they finally reach the exhibit, Lillian gasps. There, in the center, is the sculpture for which she had posed as Angelica.

But it’s not just the sculpture that takes her breath away. For the first time in her life, Lillian feels recognized and valued for her contribution to the art world. She had spent so many years hiding her past as Angelica, fearing discrimination and shame, but now she feels vindicated. As she watches the tour groups admire the sculpture and learn about her role in its creation, Lillian knows that she has finally found the respect and recognition that she deserves.