The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
Published by: Dutton Books
Publish Date: 2016
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction
HB&W Rating: 3
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She has this air of royalty about her, but not in a pampered way. More like she’s a force to be reckoned with, like she makes her own weather.
Fiona Davis’s stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City’s glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where in the 1950s a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side by side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success, 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.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Being up so high above the city made her troubles seem less dramatic.
This book is a historical fiction told in two voices, Darby in the year 1952, and Rose in present-day, and focuses on finding out the truth of a tragic event that happened at the Barbizon Hotel in 1952.
The author takes us back to the mid-century glam of 1952 New York City and the Barbizon Hotel for women, with a glimpse into the way of life for unmarried, career women in New York City at this time. Feeling alone, homesick and out of place amidst her Ford model neighbors, Darby meets Esme, a smart, scrappy maid / coatcheck girl, and is introduced to a whole new side of New York City, and the dawning realization that maybe, just maybe, she could make a home for herself there after all.
Then we meet Rose, a down on her luck journalist who is working at a company she hates for a boss she doesn’t respect, and to top it all off, she gets dumped and told to move out of the condo she shared with her ex after he convinced her to sell her rent-controlled studio apartment months beforehand. Intrigued by her downstairs neighbor, one of the original residents of the Barbizon before it went condo, Rose sets out to get the scoop on Darby and the other original residents, hoping to make a name for herself and maybe find some meaning in her own troubles to help her get through them.
I found Darby’s story relatable, inspiring and even if she was a bit naive (which a sheltered girl from the midwest at this time was more than likely to be), she rose to meet the odds stacked against her with the help of her friend. I really liked Esme’s character, and how her inner drive and grit rubbed off so favorably onto Darby. And I liked that even when Darby grew up and grew more independent with the help and encouragement of Stella, Esme, and Sam, she held fast to her morals, her ideals, and her sense of right and wrong.
Underneath the rough voice and confidence, Esme was scared as well. Not scared of change, like Darby was, but scared of staying put, staying unchanged.
There’s a lot of substance in this book highlighting some of the sexist ideals of the past, and how things still haven’t changed that much almost 70 years later.
Did you know there are dozens of terrible names for old women? Crone, cat lady, hag, battle-ax. But there’s no male equivalent.
One of the things I admire most about this time (1950s), was how determined some women were to become more than what others had deemed acceptable. Striking out on their own, making their own life, even within the constraints of the times, these women were total badasses. World War II and women’s entry into the workforce while men were off fighting was the event that really turned the tide on women’s lib and feminism as we know it. I loved getting a small glimpse of that here in this novel.
‘Don’t you dare project your own fears onto me.’ Her nostrils flared. ‘I reject them. If you’re lonely and scared, you better deal with it now, because life only gets lonelier and scarier, no matter how many people fill your home or your heart. It’s up to you, sweetheart. Ultimately, you’re on your own.‘
By comparison, Rose and her story was so disappointing to me. Here we see a modern-day woman who has built her life around a man. Compared to Darby and her contemporaries, Rose comes across weak-willed, whiny, incompetent, and even, dare I say it, pathetic, not to mention that her ethics are questionable. She just lacks the same backbone evident in every other female we are shown in this book, and I just found her incredibly unlikeable.
In conclusion, I liked this book, but it fell victim to the usual problem of books with dual timelines…one was simply a stronger story than the other. As much as I loved the historical timeline, the present-day timeline was lacking in depth, the characters were more like caricatures, and the heroine was just so unlikeable to me.
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