Published by Dutton on August 23rd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
"The Dollhouse. . . . That's what we boys like to call it. . . . The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you."
Fiona Davis's stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City's glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in the 1950s, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon's glitzy past. When she arrives at the famed Barbizon Hotel in 1952, secretarial school enrollment in hand, Darby McLaughlin is everything her modeling agency hall mates aren't: plain, self-conscious, homesick, and utterly convinced she doesn't belong—a notion the models do nothing to disabuse. Yet when Darby befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid, she's introduced to an entirely new side of New York City: seedy downtown jazz clubs where the music is as addictive as the heroin that's used there, the startling sounds of bebop, and even the possibility of romance. Over half a century later, the Barbizon's gone condo and most of its long-ago guests are forgotten. But rumors of Darby's involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952 haunt the halls of the building as surely as the melancholy music that floats from the elderly woman's rent-controlled apartment. It's a combination too intoxicating for journalist Rose Lewin, Darby's upstairs neighbor, to resist—not to mention the perfect distraction from her own imploding personal life. Yet as Rose's obsession deepens, the ethics of her investigation become increasingly murky, and neither woman will remain unchanged when the shocking truth is finally revealed.
I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Utilizing the past to cope with the future is a common theme in contemporary literature, but rarely is it as deftly handled as in début novel ‘The DollHouse’. Fiona Davis’ generation hopping tale of two New York inhabitants shows us that despite the decades between them, there’s actually little to tell them apart.
Now hidden among a myriad of steel and glass behemoths, the Barbizon once stood proud in the New York skyline. Built in the 1920s it housed young, professional women – eager for a taste of the big city, but still requiring the comfort and safety of home. But it wasn’t until the mid-50s that the Barbizon came into it’s own as the place to stay, with Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, and Liza Minnelli among it’s patrons. It’s most famous resident was a young Sylvia Plath, and it was her stay here that formed the basis of her well-known work ‘The Bell Jar‘. Now, after a gutting and complete conversion, it’s been transformed into condos, now going by the rather generic name of ‘Barbizon 63‘, and it’s in this form where ‘The Dollhouse’ begins.
It’s 2016, and Rose Lewin is bending over backwards to please her partner, the recently divorced Griff. While seemingly independent and forthright, Rose is very eager to please, and is determined to please her man. Between fussing over dinners, and planning out the new apartment that Griff has put her up in, she has little time to worry about her new job at a ‘Buzzfeed-esque’ news site. It’s only when she meets a mysterious neighbour, who keeps herself veiled (literally and figuratively) that her curiosity about her building is piqued, and her journalistic instincts take over. When Griff declares that he’s going back to his wife, Rose’s life falls apart, especially as she has to leave the building that has become an obsession, and events start to spiral out of control.
Naive, insecure, and under pressure from her domineering mother, Darby McLaughlin arrives at The Barbizon, a hotel for ‘professional women’. It’s 1952, and the place is swarming with models, journalists, and students of the secretarial college, all desperate to make their mark on the world. Due to an administrative error, Darby is placed on the same floor as the models, instead of with her fellow secretaries, and is slowly brought out of her shell by their influence. But it’s only when she meets Esme, a strong-willed maid, that she really comes out of her shell. Introduced to jazz clubs, late nights, and the buzz of the city at night, Darby starts to loosen up and live a little – but at what cost?
Fiona Davis first novel is as much a love story to a ‘golden’ era as it is a character piece. A total flipside to the likes of the wonderful Mad Men, ‘The Dollhouse’ presents a generation of women who didn’t want the expected ‘husband, 2.4 children, white picket fence’ lifestyle. Here are strong-willed women, determined to succeed, no matter where they begin in life. From the cold, calculated models, to the wild, consequence ignoring Esme, these women may be a decade away from a full feminist revolution, but they’re certainly determined to lead the way. Davis nails this period beautifully, especially with her use of evocative language, and it’s clear that she’s spent a great deal of time on her research.
Darby’s situations are mirrored subtly in Rose’s timeline, especially when her relationship breaks up and she forces herself to become more independent and forceful. While she clearly doesn’t have the issues that Darby has in the 50s, the hurdles she must get over to succeed make us question exactly how far have we really progressed? For a novel with such a strong message of independence and survival, I did feel disappointed that Rose was given a ‘love interest’ in the form of former war reporter Jason. Their relationship felt forced and one-dimensional, and certainly wasn’t as essential to the narrative as that of Sam, a driving force in many of Darby’s decisions.
While the split-generation timeline worked well, there are moments within each one that slow the narrative pace down and this was a shame. It’s clear from the off that ‘something bad’ happened in the past, and getting to the bottom of it is the crux of this novel’s arc; so the mystery is weakened by superfluous conversations that add little to the plot. Thankfully, these don’t get in the way of the superb character progression that sees both Darby and Rose evolve into strong, independent women.
While the ending of ‘The Dollhouse’ may be a tad ‘Hallmark’ in execution, this is a novel that will satisfy any reader for whom the history behind a tale is just as important as the story itself.
For more on the history of The Barbizon check out Untapped Cities and this wonderful article from Vanity Fair
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