When the novel opens Mary Lawrence, a 25 year old New York sculptor, is assembling her first public work at the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. She is the only woman allowed to have a piece of sculpture outside the Woman’s Building and not everyone on the Fair Committee is happy with the decision to give a woman the prestigious honor of sculpting the statue of Christopher Columbus in the Fair’s Court of Honor. Her friend and mentor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, recommended her and that was enough for the Fair Committee to give her the commission. In the next seven chapters the story goes back to the mid 1880s when Mary first becomes committed to being a sculptor, becomes Saint Gaudens’s assistant at the Arts Students League in New York and makes several trips to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, the women’s equivalent of the Ecole des Beaux Arts (which did not allow women students).
Mary experiences, along with her friends and fellow artists, the pangs of professional rejection, the joys of being part of the new American Beaux Arts community and gets a taste of the freedom of their bohemian life. Unlike most 19th century young women she had both the financial and emotional support of parents who encouraged her to pursue a career as a sculptor. Through her New York friends Charles McKim, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Stanford White, Charles Dana Gibson, and James McNeill Whistler, she is exposed to the world of art and accomplishment, which thrills her. The arc of the novel builds as Mary becomes increasingly sure of the life she wants to lead. It is in strong contrast to the life her sister Edith chooses in marrying the conventional businessman George Chisholm.
Mary learns at the Academie that being a sculptor is a hard life even for men. It is only after receiving praise from the critics for her Columbus at the World’s Fair that she begins to blossom as a woman and appreciates the attentions of fellow artists in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, she is often overcome with self-doubt and continues to feel conflicted about her career choice.
In both New York and Paris during the years after 1893 Mary’s life is rich and colorful. Gus Saint-Gaudens admired her talent and treasured her friendship as did his contemporary, Charles McKim, who fell in love with her despite his being 21years older. She appreciates her sheltered, idyllic life at Cliffside, the family estate at Snedens Landing on the Hudson River but she is, however, more and more drawn into la vie boheme each time she returns to Paris in the late 80s and early ‘90s. She falls in love in Paris with Francois Michel Tonetti, a handsome young French sculptor at the Beaux Arts who courts her with charm and imagination rather than social standing and money.
After first seeing her in 1893 Tonetti declares to his artist friends that he has seen his Demeter and must have her in his life.
Mary’s decision to marry Tonetti is tied to the other important decision she must make: whether or not to put up with the ever increasing difficulties of being a woman artist in the 1890s. Mary and Francois share a joie de vivre, a love of art and the pursuit of beauty which form a solid foundation for their successful marriage. In spite of the class, economic and cultural differences, Henry Lawrence gives his permission for them to marry. Mary’s mother, Lydia Lawrence, represents the unconventional liberal attitude of her class when she answers the objections of Saint Gaudens to the marriage, “I thoroughly approve. We have married far too long our own kind!”