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The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin

Photo: Lou Rouse

Review by Rebecca M. Alvin

If you’ve ever visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you’ve undoubtedly noted that the experience of the space itself is more profound than any individual work on display. Gardner created the museum as a space for the multitudes of art works, books, furniture, and other objects she had collected over the course of her life as something of a Boston aristocrat, albeit one who never quite fit in with the famously cold New England elite from the day she entered high society there. Her museum is unique because of its exquisite environment, the building of which she supervised at every step of the way in a time when women were not thought intelligent enough for architecture. But it is also unique in her stipulation that upon her death nothing at all would be changed about it—no new works added, none put away, nothing re-arranged, as she purposely curated it in her own interesting way, not according to era or style or even location of origin, but rather in tune with the connections she personally made between the various items, something we can never completely decipher. And yet, Emily Franklin’s historical novel about her does bring us closer to understanding it by showing us a version of Isabella Stewart Gardner that is extraordinary.

Even if you’ve never been to the museum, even if you know nothing at all about Gardner, The Lioness of Boston is a fascinating read and one that many readers will connect with through its focus on Gardner’s status as something of a misfit in her particular crowd. Yes, Gardner was extremely wealthy and her money came through marriage and inheritance, but what is so remarkable about her is what she chose to do with the life she was given; none of us choose the circumstances of our birth, and yet we all choose what to do with our limited time here on Earth. Gardner, ever curious and creative-minded, realized after the death of her child from pneumonia at age 2, that she was never going to fit into the proscribed role for a wealthy white woman in Boston. Her mind was too expansive, her interests too diverse and all-consuming, and so she rebelled in the way that she could. While she was not herself an artist, she seemed to understand artists and to have a strong intellect, even without the education that was only afforded to men at the time (certain men only, of course). And in this sense, her museum is her art because it is designed as the truest expression of who she was.

Franklin’s book, vividly written in beautiful prose, takes us through Gardner’s triumphs and tragedies, and manages to do something difficult in this age of revolting gaps between have and have-nots; she manages to evoke empathy for a wealthy woman who had been afforded every convenience that the vast majority would never have. And yet, she was human, and as depicted in The Lioness of Boston, she was complex and filled with the same desires and anxieties and insecurities we all face, women in particular.

Emily Franklin will be in conversation with author and former publishing executive Erin McHugh at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., on Thursday, August 10, 6 p.m. The Lioness of Boston is available there and at all booksellers. For tickets to the event call 508.413.3225 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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