“Rich both in twists and period detail, this tale of big-city ambition is impossible to put down.”—People
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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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
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.
Excerpted from "The Dollhouse"
Copyright © 2017 Fiona Davis.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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?