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.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Fiona Davis
New York City, 2016
She’d forgotten the onions.
After all of the preparation, the lists, the running out of work early to finish shopping and buy everything she needed for their special dinner, Rose had forgotten a key risotto ingredient. She checked the pantry, but the basket was empty save for a few remnants of the papery outer layers.
Griff had raved about her risotto soon after they’d started dating, and she remembered how proud she’d been listing off the more surprising ingredients.
“The coconut milk is the secret to it,” she’d confided.
“Why coconut milk?” He sat back in the rickety chair she’d bought at the thrift store on Bleecker, his long arms and legs far too unwieldy for her small studio apartment.
“I find it makes the texture especially creamy.” She said it lightly, as she collected their plates, as if cooking was easy for her, just another thing she did well, rather than a panic-inducing race to the finish line. “I slowly add the chicken stock and coconut milk to the rice and spices until all the flavors have melded.”
“I like the way you say that. Melded. Say it again.”
She did so, the way she would on camera, her pitch slightly lower than her conversational voice, clear and sure.
Then he’d swept her up and made love to her on her bed with its tasteful handmade quilt. She’d stifled the impulse to sweep it to the side, so as not to have to send it to the dry cleaners tomorrow, and had instead surrendered to the enormity of him, all muscles and sinew, an athlete’s body even at forty-five.
She missed the simplicity and the heat of their life back then, before the angry ex-wife and the surly children punctured their cocoon of happiness. Before she’d given up her apartment and they’d moved into the Barbizon condo on the Upper East Side.
Of course, his ex-wife and children wouldn’t share her perspective. To them she was the interloper, taking up Griff ’s attention and love. She checked the clock on the oven. Almost six. If she was fast, she could run out to Gourmet Garage and pick up white onions before Griff got home from City Hall.
Her cell phone rang. Maddy again. The fourth call this hour.
“What, Maddy?” She tried to sound irritated, but laughed before Maddy could reply.
“I know, I know. You don’t have any time to talk to your best friend right now. You’re far too busy doing the dutiful housewife thing, right?”
“Yup. And you’re off to the Soapies?”
“Daytime Emmys, if you please. I wish you were coming, Ro. What shoes go with the Michael Kors? Nude or gold?” Maddy’s career as an actress had taken off since they’d met in college. Maddy had landed a contract role out of school on a daytime soap opera, and this was her first nomination.
Rose swallowed her guilt at not being by her friend’s side. “The nude, definitely. Text me a pic, okay?”
“Any idea what Griff ’s big news is yet?”
Rose smiled and leaned back on the kitchen counter. “Probably nothing so big, in the end,” she lied. “Maybe he’s been promoted again? Such an overachiever.”
“I don’t think so. Do the math: It’s been a year since his divorce was finalized, you’ve been living together for three months, and it’s time to set a date.”
“He has been acting weird lately. But what if I’m getting way ahead of myself?”
“Trust your gut.”
“My gut says something’s up. Even though sometimes it still feels like it’s early stages. I mean, we haven’t even furnished the apartment yet.”
The apartment she both loved and hated. Loved for its tall French casement windows, for its Wolf range and spacious closets. Loved for the air of promise it held in its baseboards and crown moldings and Bolivian rosewood floors.
But hated for its emptiness. She and Griff both worked too many hours during the week to take a real stab at furniture shopping, and weekends he went to his house in Litchfield with his kids, his wife off gallivanting with her other divorced friends. Ex-wife, she corrected.
So much work needed to be done to make it homey. The wallpaper in the smallest bedroom was covered in tiny climbing monkeys. Delightful as nursery wallpaper, but not at all right for Griff ’s teenaged daughters. The floorboards in the dining room were bare except for the ghost outline of the prior owner’s Oriental rug.
Rose often felt like a ghost herself on weekends, sitting in the window seat off the library, staring down at the traffic and pedestrians wandering in pairs below. The sounds of honking and laughter easily permeated their fifth-floor apartment, even when the windows were shut. The neighborhood, Sixty-Third Street just off of Lexington, lacked the character of her old West Village stomping ground, where the trees formed a canopy over the cobblestones. Up here the sidewalks were bare, the avenue crammed with gilded little shops selling white linen toddler dresses and antique maps of Paris.
Rose waited while Maddy grunted into her dress. “Jesus, this zipper is literally unreachable. I need another pair of hands.”
“Where’s Billy again?”
“Parent-teacher night. He and his ex are having dinner afterward to discuss school options for next year. And if I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m quite happy to have a Get Out of Jail Free card for that one.”
“I’d be there to dress you properly if I could, you know that.”
“Oh, don’t worry, honey, I know. I’ll text you a pic and you do the same once you get the ring.”
Rose hung up, laughing, and padded down the long hall to the master bedroom, where she slipped out of the sheath she’d worn that day. As usual, she’d overdressed. The rest of her barely legal colleagues at the media start-up, all younger by at least ten years, gravitated toward jeans and hoodies. She pulled on a pair of leggings and a soft cashmere V-neck, then touched up her lips in the mirror.
Griff liked to call her his pinup girl, an image she encouraged when they went out together with a shade of crimson lipstick that worked with her pale skin and dark, sleek bob. But lately she’d begun wondering if the color was garish for a woman in her mid-thirties. Like she was trying too hard.
Did a man wonder whether his face was too shiny, his hair curling unreasonably, or if his crow’s-feet had possibly deepened overnight? She couldn’t imagine Griff giving any of these things a second thought. He entered a room as an agent of change, a man who made the news. Not as the pleasant-featured girl who simply reported it. When she’d worked at the network, Rose wanted to be taken seriously and dressed the part even though her producer wanted plunging necklines. Quiet wardrobe choices aside, Rose was dismissed as eye candy by a big chunk of her core audience—some of whom also liked to tweet nasty comments about her breasts and legs. At least her new job kept her out of the limelight.
The sounds of a horn drifted up through the open bedroom window. Not a car horn, though. A low, mournful longing, followed by the rasp of a drum. She wasn’t sure who: Miles Davis was the only trumpet player she could name. Her father had liked to play Dave Brubeck records when she was young, and the memory brought a smile to her face. She’d download some Brubeck to her iPhone and play it when she visited her father this weekend. He’d like that. Or he’d throw the phone across the room. You never knew, these days.
She should get going, but the haunting melody pulled her toward the open window. She leaned on the windowsill, stuck her head out, and listened. The sound drifted up from the apartment below hers but stopped moments later, replaced by a tune sung by two women. One had an edgy alto, like Lucinda Williams. The other was sweet, high, and almost angelic. The juxtaposition of the voices was unbearably beautiful: pain and hope, mixed together. The song ended with what sounded like giggling, oddly enough.
Time to get moving. She needed onions.
The apartment phone rang. Hopefully, Griff was calling to say he was running late.
“Is my dad there?”
Rose still couldn’t tell his daughters’ voices apart. “Isabelle?”
“No, it’s Miranda.” The girl let out an impatient huff. “Is my dad there?”
Neither girl would say Rose’s name out loud. Maddening. Then again, they were young and their lives were difficult. Even though Griff and his wife had been separated for three years, divorced for one, Rose had become the touchstone for everything that had gone wrong between their parents. Maddy had lucked out, meeting a man whose kids were four and seven, magical ages when Maddy was simply an extra person to play with, to receive attention from, rather than a threat.
She brightened her tone. “Hi, Miranda. He’s not home from work yet. Did you try his cell?”
“Yeah. Went straight to voice mail. That’s why I’m calling here.” “Well, he must be in the subway. I’ll let him know you called.”
No good-bye, just a click followed by a dial tone. Maybe she’d leave the monkey wallpaper up after all.
If Griff was indeed on the subway, she didn’t have much time. Rose shouldered her bag and marched down the hallway, into the elevator.
After an interminable wait, the doors closed, only to open again one floor below.
A woman stepped forward, wearing white gloves and a beautiful darkblue straw hat with an ivory veil that obscured her eyes and nose. Her matching coat, far too warm for this time of year, flared out from a closely fitted waist. Only her tentative movements, as if the floor might give way beneath her ivory shoes at any time, and the lines around her mouth and down her neck, belied her advanced age. She clutched the leash of a small dog. Immediately, she turned around to face front. Rose’s bright greeting went unanswered.
The fourth floor. When Griff and Rose were looking at the building, the real estate broker had mentioned in hushed tones that a dozen or so tenants were “leftovers,” long-term residents of the Barbizon who began as paying guests back when it was a women-only hotel in the last century. Instead of being evicted after the building turned condo, they’d all been moved to rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor.
The dog barked up at Rose and she leaned over and let him sniff her hand. The veiled lady didn’t move a centimeter. The other residents sometimes groused about the fourth-floor tenants, women who lived in valuable real estate without paying the thousands of dollars in monthly common charges that the rest of them did, but Rose felt otherwise. They were here first, and they fascinated her.
What had it been like, when the exclusive address housed hundreds of pretty young girls? Several had gone on to great fame: Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Candice Bergen; the list went on and on.
“I’m Rose Lewin.” She couldn’t help herself. The woman clearly wanted to be left alone, but Rose’s inquisitive nature took over. “I’ve just moved in, a few months ago. I’m afraid we haven’t met.”
The woman turned, slowly, her lips pursed into a tight pink line. “Welcome.” Her voice warbled with age.
The elevator door finally opened and Rose waited while her mysterious neighbor maneuvered onto the marble floor of the lobby. She walked carefully, taking small, wobbly strides and keeping her shoulders and head ramrod straight. The dog, a terrier of some kind, trotted an uneven staccato rhythm across the floor, as if the coolness of the stone hurt his thimble-size feet. Rose lagged behind them.
The doorman gallantly swept open the heavy front door. “Miss McLaughlin, greetings. And how is Bird today?”
“Fine, thank you, Patrick.”
After they passed through, Patrick addressed Rose with a smile and a slight bow. “Miss Lewin. How are you this evening?”
“Fine, thanks. I’m off to the store, back in a moment.”
She was still getting used to having a doorman. There was no need to tell him why she was going out, or to make small talk about the weather. Her tendency to do so drove Griff nuts. To him, getting out of the lobby was a mere blip in a long, busy day.
The woman and her dog turned toward Park Avenue, and Rose headed over to Second. Although the store was mobbed, she picked up two onions and a bunch of white peonies and made it through the express aisle in record time.
Patrick was standing out on the sidewalk when she returned, hands behind his back, looking up at the new building being constructed across the street. His stomach stuck out from above his belt buckle and his gray hair lifted in the breeze. She stopped and looked up with him.
“How big is it going to be?” she asked.
“Too big.” He’d been working for the Barbizon since he’d arrived in America forty years ago, and she was fairly certain he played up his Irish accent to charm the ladies. “I was thinking about what it was like when our building was the tallest in the neighborhood. Can you imagine? I’ve seen a photo of it, towering above the brownstones. Now this monstrosity across the street is going to be double the size. We don’t stand a chance.”
“Everything’s tall these days,” Rose offered. “But that’s probably what they said when our building went up.” She’d admired its design the first time they’d come to view the apartment. It was solid, unusual. The building grew thinner at the top, like a brick-and-sandstone wedding cake, the terraces decorated with grand Moorish arches.
“Patrick, when did you start working here?”
He turned to face her, eyebrows raised in surprise. She gathered that few residents asked him personal questions. “Back in the seventies. Things were very different then.”
She liked the way things came out as tings. “Do you know many of the older residents?”
“The ladies? Of course. I know them all.”
“What about the woman who left a little while ago? The one with the dog.”
He smiled. “Miss McLaughlin. And Bird. Odd woman.”
A woman with buttery blond hair clopped toward them, carrying several packages. Patrick left Rose’s side and scuttled over to her. Rose checked her watch. She really should get upstairs, not stand around chatting, but Patrick quickly reappeared. “Can I get you a taxi, Miss Lewin?” “No, no.” She waved her hand in front of her. “I was hoping you could tell me more about Mrs. McLaughlin.”
“Miss McLaughlin.” He was about four inches shorter than she was and he lifted his ruddy, round face to hers. “I don’t like to talk too much about the other residents, you know.”
Patrick loved to talk about the other tenants, but Rose put on a serious expression and nodded.
“She’s from way back, the fifties, that was when she first moved in. Came here to go to secretary school.”
“She seems like an interesting woman, the way she dresses and all.” “Not many friends in the building. Management can’t stand her. She kicked and screamed when they said she had to move from her apartment down to 4B, with the rest of the longtimers. Threatened to call her lawyer. But never did. In the end, I helped her pack up and move. She’s a retired lady, couldn’t afford proper movers, and I was happy to do it. She always remembers me at Christmas with a card and a small token.”
Apartment 4B was the one directly under theirs. The one with the music. “That was very kind of you, to help her move.”
“Terrible story, what happened to her.”
Leave it to Patrick to bury the lead. “What happened?” “There was a skirmish up on the terrace.”
“Yes. I can’t say what happened exactly. She was up there with one of the maids. It was a hotel back then, not like today, employed a big staff. Anyway, the two girls got into a fight and the maid fell to her death.”
“Good Lord. That’s awful.”
“I know. I remember I talked to one of the older porters when I first came on the job. I noticed she always wore a veil, never saw her without it. I said, ‘Why does the woman always cover her face?’ He told me she can’t stand to be seen, ever since that day.”
“Why is that?”
A family of tourists interrupted them, asking the way to Bloomingdale’s. As if he knew Rose was on the edge of her seat, Patrick spent quite a while explaining the best route and recommending a decent bistro in the neighborhood. She really had to get upstairs. If they ended up ordering in dinner, the mood would be all wrong.
Rose was waiting for the elevator to descend from one of the high floors, when Patrick reappeared by her side.
“Anyway, like I was saying. Poor Miss McLaughlin. The old porter, you know, the one I mentioned I spoke with, he said she was going to secretarial school. She was one of the innocents that came from the boondocks, not knowing anything, and she got caught up in all kinds of trouble.”
“That I couldn’t tell you.” He rubbed his temple. “But in the skirmish, as they called it, she was cut.”
He made a motion from the corner of his forehead down through the opposite eye. “Cut. With a knife.”
Her stomach turned.
“She was left disfigured, horribly scarred. Poor, poor Miss McLaughlin.” He closed his eyes. “Hasn’t once shown her face to the world again since.”
The elevator door opened and Rose stepped inside, suppressing a shudder.
She should have never asked.
Reading Group Guide
1. When Griff returns home from work, Rose ponders if, as a man, he ever wondered “whether his face was too shiny, his hair curling unreasonably, or if his crow’s feet had possibly deepened overnight? He entered the room as an agent of change, a man who made the news. Not as the pleasant-featured girl who simply reported it.” Do you think her comments reflect the current climate women in the work place experience? Why or why not? How is this different from or similar to Darby’s time?
1. Why was Darby attracted to Esme as a friend? What characteristics did Esme espouse that Darby desired? Is Esme a foil for Darby? If so, then what does Stella represent? Which one of these three characters would you rather be in the story and why?
1. What did you think of young Stella’s plan to find the wealthiest, handsomest man she could? Do you think it was a mark of codependence or independence? Why or why not? Did your impression of Stella change from the 1950s to 2016? If so, how and why?
1. What did you think about how The Dollhouse portrays the darker, seedy underbelly of the New York City jazz scene in the 1950s? Does it still retain its glamour? Why or why not?
1. Why do you think Esme kissed Darby? Was it a sexual kiss? What did it mean to each woman?
1. Do you think Rose is justified in her skewering description of the modern startup workplace and startup CEO? Do you think it accurately reflects the modern culture of these workplaces?
1. Put yourself in Darby’s shoes. Would you have gone back home after being expelled from Gibbs? Why or why not? What did you think of Darby’s plan? How did it differ from Esme’s? What do these differences reveal about their friendship?
1. What did you think of Esme in the end? What different factors of her life played in to her desperate final actions? Is she a character to be pitied, vilified, or something much more complex? How did she change Darby, for better or for worse?
1. What did you think of Rose’s concerns about her future after her breakup with Griff? Were they justified? Was Rose fair in how she viewed the lives of the elderly Barbizon women?
1. What do you think of the older women’s lives now? Are they a symbol of feminism or a dying breed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being one of the original Barbizon inhabitants?
1. Is Rose an accurate portrayal of the modern-day woman? Do you think Rose was too opportunistic in her desire to become a news-breaking journalist? Was she too desperate for Griff’s attention? What choices would you have made in her place and would those choices have been difficult? Why?
1. Did Rose’s story mirror Darby’s story? Why or why not? What are the differences and similarities? How do you think each woman changed and grew over the course of the novel?
1. Several people take on different identities, or present themselves to the world in a not-entirely-truthful way, in The Dollhouse. What purpose did these identities serve and how do you think they helped or hurt the various characters in the end?
1. How do you think the presence of food and delicacies, the different textures, spices, and smells, plays into the plot and texture of the book? How does it illuminate or obscure aspects of the two time periods? Did you have a favorite meal or ingredient? What was it and why?
1. What do you think about how Darby handled things with Sam after her skirmish with Esme? What would you have done in her situation? How do you think Darby’s life would have been different if she’d made a different choice? Ultimately, what did you think about what Darby made of her life?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a good book! The setting was very different from any other book. I was always interested in reading about the Barbizon Hotel for Women so this was a no brainer of a book to order. The story was solid and kept me intent on reading as the chapters alternated between the present and the 1950's. The characters were intriguing and likeable. Past and present along with characters and story intertwined with ease. Great first novel by this author and I look forward to her next book. Good mystery with a twist.
Great book with a glimpse into 1950's and 2016's New York City life. Interesting characters to follow.
If you were Around in the 50's this was a nastalgic read. I was an i enjoyed reading it.
Wonderful read that you won't want to put down. Two separate stores (one from 1952 and one from 2016) are perfectly blended and become one at the end. I read this in 2 sittings. Just couldn't put it down. The characters and plots were well developed. Great descriptive writing. Highly recommend this one.
This was a fun, fast read. I liked the characters in this mystery. It also offered a look at what life was like for women in the 1950s.
I teally liked this book until the last few chapters. It slowed down and got predictable.
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. Could not put it down.
Loved this book. Love the history of old new york and the Dakota. Great mystery and love of history. Read this book.
Good book. Towards the middle gets buried, when the author tries to make it relate to modern views on veminism. Worthy cause, but missed the mark. Overall, the story is good. Over the top, not realistic. But good. Finished in a day, so a good travel or beach read
The Barbizon Hotel for Women in the early 1050’s is a temporary residence for many single women who later became famous stars such as Sylvia Plath, Liza Minelli and more notable ladies. At the time when our story opens, Darby is a single woman who has left her nasty mother and stepfather to make a life for herself by studying in a secretarial school. She’s given a room on a floor with other women studying to be models and they’re catty young women who intimidate Darby. But little by little, after some harrowing experiences including a blind date that goes awry, new opportunities arise that change Darby’s entire world. The scene changes to the present day, when the character Rose has a boyfriend who decides he must dump Rose to go back to his ex-wife and his troubled daughter. Add to that the fact that Rose’s father has had to be put in a special home because of his advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She’s working in a news magazine, “Wordmerge,” as a secretary; it’s a company that hasn’t completely decided what it wants to be. For Rose, that changes when she begins to learn more about the women who have lived in the Barbizon Hotel and its history, including why it’s known as “The Dollhouse.” It’s a mysterious tale in the 1950s that involved an attack that totally disfigured the face of one woman and resulted in the horrifying death of another. This intriguing novel describes the simple account of Darby studying in a secretarial school she hates and Esme a maid who sings nights in a famous jazz club in Manhattan, the Flatted Fifth. It’s where Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and other jazz masters developed their craft. It’s also where Darby sings with Esme and discovers she’s more than a quiet little mouse, a woman who can fashion dreams to pursue. But there’s so much more going on in this club and in a return to contemporary times, Rose and a photographer friend Jason pursue the 1950s mystery as it gradually enfolds. The end of this novel is shocking but also heart-warming. The entire story is told, the characters confess their parts and together face the future, freed of unnecessary guilt but determined to live their lives making up for the mistakes made in the passionate dreams of the times. As the novel fluctuates between the past and the present, a type of parallel resolution occurs that is most pleasing to the reader. The Dollhouse is a great read that is carefully crafted and recommended. Well done, Fiona Davis!
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A book with two stories going on at the same time - my jam! One storyline is 2016 and Rose, a journalist, is living in the Barbizon building and after a series of events she finds herself completely interested in the women who lived in this building when it was a hotel just for women. The other storyline is 1952 and Darby, a young woman who moved from Ohio to the Barbizon hotel is trying to make it in NYC. I love a book that has two storylines going on at once and I love it even more when the reader knows from the beginning where they intersect! The reader knows where Rose starts and Darby begins but also where they absolutely overlap. There are definitely some daddy issues in both stories, but nothing that doesn't seem honest and real. I also loved that although Rose and Darby had some relationship issues, this book was more than I need to find a man, but more I need to find my calling and maybe a man can be on the side!
Easy read and interesting portrayal of a bygone era. But the characters were predictable abs the story line was mildly unbelievable.
I found this book to be a fun quick read.
4.5 stars The Dollhouse provides a fascinating glimpse into life at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the 1950s. The story opens in 2016 with Rose who lives in the Barbizon, which has been renovated and now contains high end condos. She learns that a few of the women who lived there until the hotel closed were granted rooms on the 4th floor so that they would have a place to live. Rose, who is a journalist, decides to pursue the stories of these women, particularly Darby McLaughlin. The Dollhouse shifts back and forth in time between 1952 and 2016. Fiona Davis connects the two stories seamlessly, and the effect is outstanding. Davis includes so many entertaining details about the Barbizon (the Odeon chandelier, the art deco décor and furnishings) and what it was like to live there in the 1950s and 1960s – women living there could not cross the lobby wearing pants, only skirts. She also references the famous women who lived there such as Sylvia Plath, Liza Minelli, Candace Bergen and Joan Crawford. The jazz and bebop scene in Manhattan in the 1950s is included too with big names such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk making appearances. The Dollhouse was a ton of fun to read and very well-written. I loved the story and was so glad I read it. Thanks to First to Read for the chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Try as I have to love this book, it just did not happen. I don't know whether the younger new writers were told that flashing back in forth in time between chapters is the thing to do or not as this is the second book that I have read on a row that used this technique. I guess it has its advantages, but I can't see them. The story becomes too disjointed and is simply annoying. I had a sister that went through the Katherine Gibbs school so I was interested right away,. Good storyline, but many characters to follow back and forth in time. .
This book definitely took me back in time into an era where women wore gloves and hats and were not to be seen wearing pants. It was definitely a different era. I enjoyed reading the fact that there were a lot of women who once lived in this "hotel" just for women including Sylvia Plath, Liza Minnelli, Candace Bergen and many other famous people. However, for the story, it was just a lot of girls from little towns across the USA that came to New York to see and make their dreams come true. Sadly, that didn't happen for all of them. And as of present day, there were still several of them that still live there on the fourth floor after the building had been made into condos. This did not read like a debut novel to me and I look forward to reading more of Fiona Davis books. I really grew to like the main characters and I like where she took the story and myself. Whether it be uptown to all the classy places or down to the jazzy places where a lot of people would not dare to go. This was a great look back at that era and it was also a sad look back at that era. I absolutely loved this story and was sad when it was done. I really did not want to leave it as I wanted to hear more about the girls of "The Dollhouse". A beautifully told story that was very well written. Thanks to Dutton and Edelweiss for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
In 1952, the Barbizon Hotel in New York City was a safe place to live for many young woman who were alone and entering the job market. Darby McLaughlin leaves behind the Midwest to make a career for herself in secretarial school. Due to lack of vacancy, instead of being placed on the floor with other young women pursuing similar careers, she is given space with the models. There she is an outsider, intimidated by the beautiful and assertive models. She does make a friend however. Esme is a spirited woman who takes Darby under her protection and introduces her to nightclub, jazz, and dances! The story then switches to the modern day. Most of the rooms in the Barbizon are now condos and she lives there with her boyfriend. When her boyfriend evicts her to return to his wife, Rose finds herself house-sitting a dog that belongs to Darby. She stumbles upon the legend and mystery of Esme and Darby and seeks to learn the dark secrets. Both storylines are very rich with complexity, and growing with conflict as each of the women's struggles become ever more challenging. Tension continually ramps up with each page turned. It's easy to follow both the present and the past storylines without being jarred from the story. As the excitement builds, the ending is unpredictable and satisfying! I loved this book. For more book reviews, please visit my blog, http://greathistoricals.blogspot.ca, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit http://www.historyandwomen.com.
What a delight this was, like reading lemon sorbet – light and refreshing, with a bit of bite if you take too big a spoonful, too quickly… My review copy of The Dollhouse was graciously provided by the publisher, Dutton (Penguin Random House). The book opens in contemporary Manhattan, and shifts perspectives – and stories – back and forth by chapter. The two storytellers are Rose, the modern-day protagonist, and Darby, the 1950s version. The two women bear more than a few traits in common and find themselves in startlingly similar straits as their lives and circumstances dance in and out of their control – sometimes due to their own misguided decisions, but occasionally due to those of the people they (think they can) trust. The setting is what makes this a novel novel though, and separates it from other books of this genre. The Barbizon Hotel for Women (the eponymous, and derogatively-nicknamed, “Dollhouse” of the title) is the home of both Darby and Rose – and scads of single women who moved to New York City in throngs in the 1950s to “better themselves” through education, modeling, or the other “respectable” jobs open to women of the day. The Barbizon has housed famous (and infamous) women throughout the years, from the darkly brilliant Sylvia Plath (perhaps the most well-known resident, albeit one of those of shorter duration – she only lived there for a month) to the sunny Grace Kelly, from the sassy Cybill Shephard to the terribly talented (and terribly controversial) Joan Crawford. It was the jumping-off point for some of the most famous women of the twentieth century, before they were known by anyone outside of their families. It was designed as a “safe”, “family” environment for these women, many of whom traveled to the big, bad city from suburbs and rural spots across America. The truth, of course, is that nowhere is always safe, not even family environments – and the Barbizon was no different. The personalities, the secrets, the in-fighting and machinations – this is what made the book fascinating to me, and what tied the lives of Darby and Rose together into an interesting narrative. The two women’s stories intertwine as Rose finds herself swept up in the drama mystery of Darby’s life in an attempt to unravel some of the drama and mystery in her own. It sounds much more convoluted than it actually is. Perhaps sorbet isn’t the right image, after all – sorbet is, after all, a relatively straightforward and predictable dessert. The book is more of a Sidecar (the drink, not the conveyance): dignified cognac dashing up hard against overly sweet triple sec, with a dash of sharp bitter lemon to somehow tie it all together by adding just enough kick to make the otherwise sickeningly-sweet bits palatable… There are definite chick-lit elements here. I don’t see the audience for this one branching very far from the “women’s fiction” section of the bookstore… Still, there is interesting history here for those interested in the developing roles of women in America, with definite parallels (and some sad realizations, tied to said parallels) to the perilous life of modern women as well. In many ways, the challenges facing the “career girls” of the Barbizon are all too relatable to women in the 21st century. It’s still a struggle to balance demands between family and job, even if the nature of those demands have shifted rather dramatically since Darby’s day. Rose certainly qualifies as a modern “career girl” – independent, suc
This book was such an interesting look into a time past..... when life seemed a little more "proper" But yet bad things happen then just like they do now. I enjoyed the 2 different timelines & the way the author intertwined them. Darby is in 1952 NYC to become a secretary & return home. She feels overwhelmed by so much until she & a maid at the Barbizon Hotel for Women become friends. Current day Barbizon resident (now condos) Ruby is a journalist & begins to investigate the stories behind a mysterious death at the Hotel all those years ago. Really enjoyed this book & look forward to reading more by Fiona Davis. Advanced Reader Copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
MEDIUM: eBook MY RATING: 3/5 Hardcover, 304 pages Published August 23, 2016 by Dutton While living in her married boyfriend’s condo in the old Barbizon Hotel, Rose Lewin hears some gossip regarding a tenant who still lives on the 4th floor, Darby McLaughlin. Darby has lived in the Barbizon since the 1950s when it was a haven for women who were preparing to enter society life, either by learning a job skill (secretarial) or by meeting a man to marry. Rose learns that Darby was somehow responsible for the death of a hotel maid named Esme, and during that event Darby’s face was brutally cut, leaving a horrible scar that she covers with a veil at all times. The book flips back and forth between 2016 and the 1950s. Most of the time, this format works out well and adds a nice layer of interest to a story. In this particular book, though, it all seems so disjointed and unnecessary. Actually, the present day storyline is rather arbitrary, bordering on uninteresting. I enjoyed the 1950s thread more, but even it was tenuous and strained at times. The two threads just didn’t flow together very well, in my opinion. I’m not sure in the real world that Rose would have cared enough about this story to devote so much time and effort to investigate it, especially when her editor wasn’t thrilled about the story, expressing it wasn’t interesting enough to publish. Which is pretty much exactly what I think about this whole story – somewhat interesting, but just not enough to make a whole book about it. Another reason I had a tough time with this book is because I could not connect with any of the characters. Rose was not especially well rounded or absorbing enough to really truly care whether she succeeded in her quest for answers or not. Young Darby was mildly entertaining but needed to get a backbone and start thinking for herself – though maybe this was an intentional character trait to highlight the mindset of most young women in the 1950s, leaving most of the “thinking” to men… I just don’t know. Esme was the most interesting person in the novel, yet even she was a rather flat, predictable character. What I did find quite interesting was the history of the hotel. The Barbizon was a real hotel, and the building still exists with most of the rooms having been converted into condos. The Ford modeling agency really did house its girls there, as did Katherine Gibbs College. In fact, many famous women lived there throughout the hotel’s heyday: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Cybill Shepard, Liza Minelli, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Joan Didion, Rita Hayworth, Sylvia Plath, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, and Cloris Leachman! Long story short, this wasn’t a winner in my opinion. It didn’t hold my interest, and as a result, I can’t really recommend it with much confidence. This book was given to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. More historical fiction books: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Well worth reading.