December 15th, 2018
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The Way of Beauty

The Way of Beauty, May 2018
by Camille Di Maio

Lake Union Publishing
Featuring: Vera Keller; Pearl Bellavia; Alice
384 pages
ISBN: 1503950123
EAN: 9781503950122
Kindle: B074H94421
Trade Size / e-Book
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"Historical fiction with three love stories: a mother, a daughter and Penn Station"

Fresh Fiction Review

The Way of Beauty
Camille Di Maio

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...

Learn more about The Way of Beauty

SUMMARY

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.

Excerpt

Prologue – 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 their claws.

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 hard hats.

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 this together.”

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 Doric columns.

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 spoke about.

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 floor.

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 was confusing.

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 speaking English.

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 behind them.

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 register.

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 shades.

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.

“Erebeere.”

“In English,” said Mama.

Vera thought for a moment, discarding the words that didn’t sound right.

“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 Parlor.’”

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 something else.

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 else."

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 things out.

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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