The Ghost of Madison Avenue: A Novella

Written by Nancy Bilyeau
Review by Sarah Johnson

Diverse locales of old New York are the setting for Bilyeau’s atmospheric novella, which takes place in 1912, in the days leading up to Christmas, but it can be read and enjoyed at any time of year. Helen O’Neill, an Irish American widow of thirty-five, is nervous to start her new position as a restorer in J. P. Morgan’s personal library. Her supervisor, the brilliant Belle da Costa Greene, has exacting standards, and what if Helen were to meet the famous financial titan in person?

For those who haven’t visited the Morgan Library and Museum—I haven’t, though plan to do so—reading this story feels like getting an exclusive private tour of the site, as it looked over a century ago, alongside Helen. With its secret staircases, ornate bookshelves and balconies, and elaborately painted high ceilings, it’s a fabulous place to envision. Helen lives comfortably with her brother’s family in a clapboard house in the Bronx’s Morrisania neighborhood and is agog at her new workplace. She’s puzzled, though, when she spies a young woman in an old-fashioned dress and hairstyle on the street outside; the snow doesn’t seem to touch her. Helen also feels a lingering sadness about her late husband, who died some time earlier, and neither she nor her family feels she’s likely to marry again.

All the characters are poignantly human, and their social and cultural backgrounds add rich shadings to their actions. The warmhearted theme of second chances is well balanced with the mysteriousness of the woman’s identity, which Helen gets in trouble trying to uncover. Add a touch of Irish magic to the plot—Helen’s unusual dexterity with her hands reminded her late mother and husband of the aes sidhe—and you have an entrancing ghost story with a touching message.