Anne McFarland is a struggling artist in San Francisco when she sees a black velvet coat in the front window of a thrift shop. Inexplicably she spends some of the very little money she has, money she'd earmarked for her rent, on the coat and the lovely sparkling snowflake pin pinned to it. Throwing on the beautiful garment, she heads off to her job as a hotel valet, one of the small jobs she's taken to try and keep her head above water while she waits for her big break in the art world. When she stumbles across a 1960s era picture of a local heiress wearing what appears to be the same coat and pin, Anne is captivated and determined to uncover Sylvia Van Dam's story. In the picture, Sylvia is leaving her engagement party with her debonair fiance but there's something about the expression in her eyes, an unhappiness, that draws Anne to her story and she starts working on a collage series that could very well be the best thing she's ever produced.
Alternating with Anne's story is Sylvia's story and what's behind the look in her eyes. Orphaned at a young age, Sylvia is a shy and unassuming young woman. Even before her parents died, she never felt she measured up to expectations and her lack of confidence in herself is heartbreaking. When she meets the flashy and charismatic Ricardo, she is entranced, falling for him quickly and ignoring the warnings all of her nearest and dearest give her about his character. When those warnings turn out to be based in truth, catastrophe strikes and Sylvia runs from the consequences.
The novel starts with Sylvia on the run from a crime the reader knows was committed but doesn't yet understand. And its genesis will only become clear over the course of the novel. The chapters alternate between Anne in the present day and Sylvia in the 1960s. As Anne uncovers more about Sylvia's life through newspaper accounts of the time, the chapters centered on Sylvia flesh out this minimal information that Anne has read. And it is the mystery of this seemingly glamorous woman that inspires Anne in her work. Anne is still struggling, suffering from her own insecurities based on rejections from an uninspired and tradition bound gallery owner and the opinions of people who are, in truth, really only tangential to her world. She needs to learn to find an inherent internal value to herself and her art. In fact, her character is an odd combination of neediness and courage and the two didn't always mesh. Sylvia too needs to stop viewing herself through the eyes of others and recognize her own value. She is deserving of being loved, something that she only comes to appreciate in her flight and through the kindness of strangers. There are several romantic relationships in the novel, for both Anne and Sylvia, and they are rather flat and one dimensional feeling. The Sylvia story line felt much more historical than the 1960s; it almost had a Roaring Twenties air about it. The two different stories, Sylvia's disappearance and Anne's conflictedness about her life choices, were both compelling though and wondering how they'd come together keeps the reader turning the pages. The conclusion of the novel was too fast and a bit unfinished, especially given all the detail given in the beginning and middle of the novel. Full of issues like inspiration and its source, believing in yourself and creating your own happiness, learning courage, a reminder to look beneath the facade to find reality, and the grace of giving to others, over all, this was a fast and pleasurable read.