I was drawn to this book, expecting the best of fictional scandals given the title. The story begins with a young Albertina Hultgren traversing the seas from Sweden to America with her mother, aunt, and uncle. Immediately the themes of “family is a blessing” and “love trumps all” are apparent. Albertina mourns the recent loss of her father, a death that catapulted her and her family into the foreign environment of New Jersey. Albertina’s first few years as a Swedish immigrant are composed of nostalgia for her homeland and the magical tales that were told to her by her father. However, the introduction to the famous married sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens serves as the catalyst for a completely new and exciting, yet untraditional life as the model Davida Johnson Clark.
Although the book is not written as an epistolary, the story reads as an intimate look into the heart and mind of Karen Ingalls’ protagonist. As I read I could sense her developing maturity, yet the innocence that characterized her from the beginning was never lost. What made this story enjoyable was the fact that I felt a connection to Davida Johnson Clark. She was a woman led by love, not just for Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but also by the love for her family. Her patience was immeasurable, her soul sincere, and her dedication to the passionate Augustus remarkable.
As a novel categorized as historical fiction, I did feel like there could have been more context to supply the story with authenticity. There were plenty of facts about the art exhibitions and Augustus Gaudens’ artistic process; however, there was no real cultural details that illustrated how alarming a relationship of this nature was at the time. I would like to have been given the tools with which to build a more vivid picture of Ingalls’ world in my head, because I truly loved the characters that lived in it.
I loved her characters so much that I cried as I empathized with their tragedies. Moreover, I had come to rely on the company of the innkeeper Maria and the New York neighbor Helen much like Davida herself. The kinship between the women in the book comforted me, and the course of events these women went through left me teary-eyed. While I wish that the book ended happily, the reality of the lives of Davida Johnson Clark and Augustus Saint-Gaudens was bittersweet and riddled with complications. What began as an affair of the body inevitably ended as an affair of the heart.