"Historical fiction with three love stories: a mother, a daughter and Penn Station"
Reviewed by Magdalena Johansson
Posted May 27, 2018
Women's Fiction | Women's Fiction Historical
What truly enchanted me when it came to THE WAY OF BEAUTY
was Penn Station. Oh, how I wished it was still standing in
all its glory. Alas, it had to give way for progress.
Luckily, there are still images and like this book,
imaginative stories that make Penn Station come to life again.
THE WAY OF BEAUTY starts off with Vera Kelly growing up in
New York City. As a child of German immigrants, her life is
tough, and she loses her mother early on in life. All
through the rest of his life her father suffers the
consequences of working on the construction of Penn Station.
A job that makes him ill like so many other workers. Young
Vera will find a friend for life in Angelo Bellavia who is a
couple of years older. A friendship that for Vera will grow
to love when she gets older. Unfortunately, Angelo meets the
wealthy suffragette Pearl and falls in love and marries her
and all Vera can do is watch as the man she loves builds a
life with Pearl and her son. Years later Vera's daughter
Alice also feel the pangs of love, but she instead is
infatuated with two very different men. One that can offer
her the world and security and another who fills her with a
passion she has never experienced before, but who keeps
secrets from her.
I found the second part of the book, the story about Alice
to be my favorite part. I usually don't like triangle
dramas, but this one made me understand the torment Alice
goes through as she tries to figure out who she wants. And,
all through the story is Penn Station. Standing proud, and
being part of the story. THE WAY OF BEAUTY is definitely a
historical fiction to read if you like love stories or if
you want to read about a certain time in New York's history,
about changes, both those for the better and those that
perhaps was a bit rash like tearing down a glorious building...
Vera Keller, the daughter of German immigrants in turn-
of-the-century New York City, finds her life upended when
the man she loves becomes engaged to another woman. But
Angelo Bellavia has also inadvertently opened up Vera’s
life to unexpected possibilities. Angelo’s new wife,
Pearl, the wealthy daughter of a clothing manufacturer,
has defied her family’s expectations by devoting herself
to the suffrage movement. In Pearl, Vera finds an
unexpected dear friend…and a stirring new cause of her
own. But when Pearl’s selfless work pulls her farther
from Angelo and their son, the life Vera craved is
suddenly within her reach—if her conscience will allow
her to take it.
Her choice will define not only her future but also that
of her daughter, Alice.
Vera and Alice—a generation and a world apart—are bound
by the same passionate drive to fulfill their dreams. As
first mother and then daughter come of age in a city that
is changing as rapidly as its skyline, they’ll each
discover that love is the only constant.
ExcerptPrologue – October 28, 1963
The stone birds stood at attention, as they had for over
fifty years. Their gray wings stretched in majestic
neglect, aching to embrace whomever would venture to climb
atop their perch over the entryway to the train station.
Although a bustling 33rd Street separated them from her
third-story apartment window, Vera could see every detail.
The scrolls of their chest feathers. The fierce grip of
Eagles, historic symbols of courage.
Did they know that their reign had come to an untimely end?
“Mama.” The word cut through the room’s silence. “Come away
from the window. You shouldn’t watch this.”
Vera didn’t turn. There were only minutes left before the
ordeal started and she couldn’t tear herself away. Her
hands clung to the peeling white paint of the sills, her
bony fingers losing all color with every passing second.
When she looked into the faces of the eagles, eye to eye,
she saw her father, victim of the tunnels that ran
underneath the station, and missed the way he used to make
her laugh with one of his magic tricks. She remembered
Angelo, and how they’d met near those steps.
Now they were covered with construction workers in yellow
Paid traitors of Manhattan, as far as she was concerned.
And her granddaughter was somewhere in that throng cheering
it all on.
Alice’s steps were light on the knotty oak floor. She
dragged one chair over and then a second. She took her
mother’s hand, patted the seat, and whispered, “Let’s do
Vera accepted the assistance. She sat down and rested her
forehead against the single-paned glass of her prewar home.
The heat of her breath created a small fog that grew and
recessed with each movement. It was cold on the other side.
Unseasonable. Like everything today.
Down on the street, protesters marched, workers waited, and
police attempted to keep the peace.
The first of the jackhammers began, shooting sparks of fire
that looked like tears. Then others followed, forming a
raucous and discordant symphony. Black dust flew from their
deadly iron drills, revealing the blush-colored granite
that lay below the exterior of the regal birds, enshrouded
with decades of grime. Their original beauty was uncovered
in a final, futile attempt at salvation.
The two women gasped and held on to each other. Half a
century of the city’s dreams resided within the station’s
Vera had jumped rope among the shadows that grew daily as
the magnificent station was built. Her first and best kiss
had taken place underneath its cathedral-like glass
ceiling. Her father had lost his life to it.
She knew Alice had her own memories. The ones she never
Only Libby was missing from this requiem. Vera wished that
she didn’t think of her granddaughter with such
disappointment. But it couldn’t be helped. The girl was
infected with the same youthful fervor for New! New! New!
that had plagued the city council.
Now they watched as the first of the twenty-four eagles
descended on ropes and pulleys, slated to end their days
wallowing in a swamp in New Jersey. The politicians stood
next to it and grinned for the photographers like big game
hunters with a slaughtered prize.
Progress. All in the name of Progress, the newest god
birthed in America.
The legislators were not alone in their guilt, though.
There were other executioners. Airplanes and cars had
replaced the profitability of train travel. The demand for
a basketball court and concert venue for a vacuous public,
ever-hungry for showy entertainment, surpassed the regard
for the hallowed spot where loved ones had once said their
goodbyes to the men going off to war.
Nothing seemed sacred these days.
Vera couldn’t bear to watch any longer. It was like burying
a piece of herself. She rose on shaky knees and asked
Alice to help her to the bedroom, where she could close her
eyes and be alone with her memories.
Alice adjusted the pillows as they both heard a knock at
the door. Vera sat up to answer.
“I’ll get that,” her daughter whispered, giving her a kiss
on the forehead before leaving the room.
Vera heard the unlatching of the chain, and young boy
saying, “A message for someone named Alice.” Her daughter
let out a gasp loud enough for Vera to hear from her bed.
“I’ll be right back!” Alice shouted.
The sound of the slammed door echoed down the hallway.
But she was gone for a very long time. When Vera woke up
and sauntered into the hallway, she found a telegram on the
My Dreamer, it said. It’s been too many years. But I must
see you. E.
So he was back.
Part One - VERA
Chapter 1: 1900
The tangle of laundry lines reminded five-year-old Vera of
the spiderweb that stretched across a corner above her
mattress in the one-room apartment that she lived in with
Mutter and Vater.
No, not Mutter and Vater. Mother and Father. Mama and Papa.
Her English was strong, but some words still slipped out of
habit. Mutter – no, Mama – told her that she would soon
start a new program called kindergarten while Mama went to
work in a shirtwaist factory. Vera would learn to speak
English better when she was with other children.
Why was it was all right to say a German word like
kindergarten but not a German word like mutter? New York
Mama took her out early for errands, and already they’d
visited the produce stand and the bakery that sold Papa’s
favorite pumpernickel. Mama walked in long strides and
Vera’s little legs had to run to keep up.
The bright sun was blocked by the crisscrossed rows of
trousers and undergarments and bedclothes that created a
canopy over the streets. Vera danced around their moving
shadows, sidestepping litter and rat droppings to tiptoe
between the brief patches of light that burst through.
“Beeilen,” said Mama, which Vera knew to mean hurry, and
she wondered again why the adults could get away without
Her mother was not always as ill-tempered as she had been
lately. Mama was usually sweet and sang lullabies and told
stories to Vera. But not for the past few weeks. Something
was different, not only with her parents, but with all of
the adults she encountered.
They arrived at the butcher shop, always the last stop so
that the meat wouldn’t spoil. Mama ran her finger down the
advertisements posted on the window until she found the one
that cost the least amount of money.
“Chuck-eye” she said to her daughter. “I’ll ask Mr.
Severino to grind it.” That meant that she would shape it
into patties, which Vera especially loved with cheese on
top of them. But cheese was saved for special occasions.
Like her birthday. Sometimes a chuck-eye meant that Mama
would let it marinieren – marinate – which meant that they
gave it a bath in vinegar and spices.
The bell dinged as they walked into the shop. She gripped
her mother’s hand tighter as she looked around the room.
This was her least favorite errand.
The ceiling was lined with skinned carcasses suspended from
rusted hooks. Exposed ribs hung encircled with marble-like
sinew. Vera squeezed her eyes tight and imagined streaks of
color shooting through the blackness of her lids. But
nothing could keep out the stench, nor the sounds of the
men and women arguing as they waited their turn.
“He is tall. Long black coat. Brown hair and a long nose.”
“No, he’s shorter than I am. Black hair. Shiny shoes.”
Mr. Severino turned from behind the counter. His long apron
stretched to its limits across his belly, and was smeared
with fresh streaks of red and brown layered over darker,
older ones. He wielded a cleaver, and slammed it down onto
the wooden counter. Vera buried her head in her mother’s
hip and held in a scream. They were all speaking so
quickly, but she understood most of it.
“You’re a bunch of damn fools, all of you,” the butcher
shouted. No one dared to argue with him. “Yes, he’s tall.
But he’s got red hair and freckles. Jesus Christ, you’re
all seeing things.” He wiped his hands over his sweaty,
hairless head. “And it doesn’t matter what he looks like.
He’s up to some kind of no good.”
His wife put down the waxed paper roll and twine that she’d
just pulled from the storeroom and feverishly crossed
herself. Vera’s mother pulled her daughter closer and
covered her ears.
The rumor was that a man was walking around the Tenderloin
carrying "more cash than God." Papa had told Mama that the
man was buying buildings like they were candy. Businesses
were shutting down, and tenants were being evicted. Panic
had immigrated to midtown New York. Vera didn’t understand
what all of those words meant, but they didn’t sound good.
“Let’s go, Vera,” her mother said, holding her by the wrist
and hurrying toward the entrance.
“Aw, Mrs. Keller,” the butcher shouted after them. “Mi
dispiace. I’m sorry. Come on, come on, come on.” He waved
his fleshy hand in the air. But whatever he said next was
drowned by the sound of the bell as she closed the door
Vera was relieved to be out of that place, even it if meant
they would only have bread and peas for dinner. Mama stood
under the green awning, glanced at her wristwatch, and
looked right and left. She told Vera that there was just
enough time for a small detour.
They walked two blocks to 34th and 5th, where Mama said she
could choose a piece of candy from the sweets shop. As they
rounded the corner, Vera smiled when her favorite window
came into view. It was decorated with towers made from bags
of nuts, and glass jars that were filled with every sort of
candy. The colors reminded her of the box of twelve wax
crayons that her parents had given to her for her birthday.
Just a couple of months later they were already worn down
to nubs. The two rooms of their apartment were lined with
drawings that Vera copied out of borrowed books.
Mama pulled some coins out of her pocket, and frowned as
she counted them. “Never enough,” she whispered under her
breath. But she smiled when she looked at Vera. “Just one
piece today. A small one.”
This place was so much better than Mr. Severino’s. It
smelled like marshmallows and caramel and chocolate, and
the lady behind the counter was pretty, although even she
wore the same nervous look that had taken up residence on
the faces of the people who lived in the neighborhood. Her
white apron was clean and had lace trim. Vera reached for a
large lollipop, swirled like a cinnamon bun. But Mama
guided her instead toward the thin sugar sticks near the
While Vera could identify her letters, she knew very few
combinations that made words. Instead, she could
differentiate the flavors by the various light and dark
Dark red was cherry. Light red was watermelon. Dark green
was apple. Light green was lime.
Her mother read them off anyway. “Grape, lemon, apricot,”
she finished, as they got to the last jar. She’d slipped
into German for some of the words. She waited for her
daughter to select one.
“In English,” said Mama.
Vera thought for a moment, discarding the words that didn’t
“Strawberry,” she said at last. The shop girl nodded.
Mama held out the coins in her hand. “Try to pick the
penny,” she said.
Vera looked them over, copper and silver, and recognized
the correct one by the laurel wreath on the back. She
pointed to it and looked up. Her mother smiled, and slid it
across the counter. She handed the sweet to her daughter.
Vera removed the wrapper, savoring the crinkly sound that
it made as it shimmied down the sugar stick.
Mama laughed when they walked outside and saw the fat man
with the dark face who stood by the door.
“What’s funny?” Vera asked.
“He’s wearing a sign that says ‘Dr. Rankin’s Dental
Vera didn't understand what that meant until her mother
explained that it was amusing to have a place where they
cleaned teeth right next to the store that sold candy. She
had a smile on her face as she said it, the first one Vera
had seen on her in a long time.
They stepped outside. The sun was beginning the descent
that would still take a few hours to complete. Mama had to
cook supper in time for Papa to go to the meeting. They
turned down a street that they had always avoided before.
She said, "Close your eyes," but didn't say why. She
clutched Vera’s hand tighter, saying nothing about its
stickiness, and quickened the pace.
In their haste, Vera dropped her sugar stick and cried out.
Mama picked it up, but the red swirled candy was covered in
wet dirt. She began to reach for it, but jumped away when a
horse carriage raced by, its wheel crushing the treat. “I’m
sorry, darling. But we can’t go back now.”
Vera’s face melted into a frown.
“How about this? I’ll put a little honey on your bread when
we get home.”
She could feel her mother’s pulse beating rapidly and
didn’t want to be the cause of an argument. There were too
many of those lately in their neighborhood.
It seemed as if even the sun knew to stay away from the
crime-riddled Tenderloin, because it had become cloudier
than it was just moments ago. The street was littered with
trash, and the smell of the sewer was overwhelming as it
wafted on the back of the wind through the streets of
midtown. Pictures with women wearing nearly no clothing
were plastered on brick walls, one poster laid on top of
another. Vera thought they looked strangely beautiful, and
admired the pinkness of the women’s cheeks and fullness of
their hair. She saw many signs that said "G-I-R-L-S" and
"B-A-R" and when Vera remembered to close her eyes again,
she worked out the sounds of the letters the way that her
mother had taught her. "B-A-R" was easy, but she didn't
understand why that word was on signs, unless they sold
soap, which was the only time she'd ever heard the term.
"G-I-R" was not so hard, but it took her the rest of the
way home to work out the sound of the "L-S", and before she
had a chance to wonder why a store would say "girls,"
they’d arrived at their building.
Papa and the neighbors were already gathered outside. Their
voices were loud.
Everyone was talking about the man who had been walking
around the area, paying cash for buildings. Just like the
butcher shop, no one could agree on what he looked like.
Some said he was tall with a brown trench coat and a black
hat, and others said that he was short, and wore a cap like
a newspaper boy. Old, young, fat, thin, everyone said
The next day, the confusion ended as it was discovered that
there were, in fact, three men buying buildings. But it
only created new problems. Some were saying that it didn't
matter why the men wanted to purchase them, at least the
brothels and the bars and the casinos were closing, and the
place would finally be cleaned up. And others argued that
people had to earn a living somehow, and the landlords had
just "taken the money and run."
The adults were anxious and with good reason. It was not
long after that her parents came home to find a large paper
pinned to the front door of the building. Mama gasped and
held her hand to her face, and Papa's cheeks became
inflamed as he hung his head. He said, "Well, you're
getting your wish; looks like we have to move somewhere
Vera knew what it meant to move. She'd once had a friend
named Cecilia who lived across the hall but had moved to
Staten Island just a few months ago. Vera knew from her
mother telling her that islands had palm trees and oceans
and beaches and sunshine all year, so she imagined that it
must be quite an adventure for Cecilia to live in such a
place. Maybe they would move to Staten Island, too,
although she thought her parents would look more excited if
that were the case.
Her parents were up all that night, and Vera peeked out
from under a blanket to see Mama pulling dishes out of the
cupboard, saying, "Where are we going to go?" and
"Why aren't you helping me?" while Papa sat with his head
on the table and his arms covering it. The next day Mama's
eyes were red, and she wore the kind of smile that Vera was
old enough to know was a fake, but she played along when
Mama said that they were going to do something new and
exciting. They weren't going to Staten Island after all;
they were going to a boardinghouse until they could figure
The date of eviction was immediate. They had four
carpetbags and a suitcase, and a promise from Papa that he
would go back for the cuckoo clock that Mama’s grandfather
had made and brought from his shop in Germany. The one with
the little girl who danced through a doorway while a bird
chirped at the change of the hour.
But he never did, as far as Vera knew.
Outside, the street looked different than it ever had
before. People spilled out onto the sidewalk, where they
had to maneuver around putrid piles of horse droppings.
Everyone had as much as they could carry - bags, trunks,
crates. Some had pitched in to share carriages so that they
could load furniture, but Papa said that since they were
going to a boardinghouse, they wouldn't need what little
furniture they had. Mama cried and hugged some of her
friends, not knowing where the evictions would scatter
everyone. Papa and the other men shook hands, and the
landlord, Mr. Percy, stood on the stoop with his arms
folded, surveying this mass good-bye, while even one block
away the sounds of demolition could already be heard.
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