Book Review: The Spectacular by Fiona Davis
Marion Brooks dreams of a career in dance. But in her 1950s home her father’s word is law, and Simon Brooks believes that the only jobs suitable for women are nurse, teacher, or secretary. Her older sister Judy has followed that path, joining him in the executive suite of Met Power as his dutiful assistant. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Marion teaches ballet and thinks wistfully of her late mother Lucille, who encouraged her dreams in ways that Simon never would. Simon, as a matter of fact, would be happiest if she would forget about a career altogether and marry her high school sweetheart Nathaniel, who seems totally on board with Simon’s plans for Marion to spend all her energies on cultivating a tasteful home for her husband and eventual children.
After Marion discovers a cache of playbills in the attic which indicate that Lucille wasn’t just the perfectly happy housewife of Simon’s lectures, she engages in possibly her first ever act of rebellion, joining a frenemy from work at the open auditions for the world-famous Rockettes:
“What are you doing here?” Vanessa’s eyes were narrow, suspicious.
The answer couldn’t be easily explained. That this was Marion’s way of reclaiming what had been lost? Not only her mother, but the chance to become a professional dancer, the opportunity to pursue what she loved. Or was it a petty rebellion against her father for [treating her] like she was a child, and not telling her and Judy the truth about Lucille, and against Nathaniel for the cavalier way he assumed she would abandon dance once she was married?
Marion figures that auditioning will be her final hurrah before accepting Nathaniel’s proposal and settling down back in Bronxville, so no one is more surprised than she is when she makes the cut. Joining the Rockettes is far more glamorous and grueling than Marion ever imagined, and she loves every minute of it. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, her father doesn’t see things in the same way, and practically throws her out. With the help of friends whom she quickly makes from within the ranks of her fellow Rockettes and associates, she begins to learn what it means to be independent, even as she does her best to make amends with her family.
But hovering over all their lives is the threat of a criminal who’s been terrorizing the city for well over a decade now:
For the past sixteen years, starting in 1940, someone had been planting pipe bombs around New York City, in subway stations, department stores, theaters, even Grand Central Terminal. The newspapers called the culprit the Big Apple Bomber and so far, a dozen people had been injured, some seriously. The very first bomb was planted in a toolbox at a Met Power compound on Sixty-Fourth Street, with a note reading, <i>Met Power crooks–this is for you</i>. That one hadn’t gone off. But since then, the bomber had expanded his reach and his skill, setting off explosions in well-populated places like the Port Authority and Grand Central, something repeating the same target years later. And now he’d hit the library. Even worse, the madman’s pace was picking up.
When the Big Apple Bomber strikes during a Rockettes performance at Radio City Music Hall, resulting in a terrible death, Marion is spurred to do whatever she can to put a stop to him. The police barely register an interest in her theories even though she was an eyewitness to the crime. With the help of a psychiatrist friend, she figures out a way to track down the killer, going to extraordinary lengths to capture him while juggling, not altogether successfully, her hectic schedule as a dancer. Sacrificing her career in the pursuit of justice is one thing. What else will our driven heroine be forced to give up to ensure that the Bomber never kills again?
This fictionalized account of real events is everything I’ve ever wanted from a historical mystery! Marion is a deeply sympathetic, multi-layered heroine, who reminds me of being 19 myself and yearning for a bigger world than was on my own horizon. The anecdotes regarding the Rockettes were also incredibly entertaining. Just as gripping, but for different reasons, was the depiction of the Big Apple Bomber, modeled after the real life George Metesky, whose grudge against the Con Edison power company led to the terrorization of an entire city. The investigation into his bombings was one of the first that used psychological profiling to narrow down the suspect list. While Marion’s role in the apprehension of the version in this book is fictional, it does echo the self-effacing efforts of Alice Kelly, the Con Edison clerk who scoured personnel files till she uncovered Metesky’s identity.
Of course, Marion’s investigations involve a lot more drama than merely going through documents – though she definitely does some of that, too! The events of The Spectacular build from what really happened to tell a heartbreaking story of determination and discovery, with more than a dash of derring-do. With a swoon-worthy romance included, this tremendous novel has leapt on to my list of Best Books of 2023. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it made its way on to yours, too.