Sometimes I swear that the 1950s are my happy place. Then I wake up and realize how 21st-Century-me would have probably been labeled insane.
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis is a book that makes this revelation abundantly clear while still telling a compelling narrative.
The novel tells two stories linked by one central point: the Barbizon Hotel for Women. The Hotel used to house women who were in New York City for secretarial school, but it has now been converted into a condo, where several long-time residents have been given a floor to live on. Through this landmark, we meet two young women: one from 1952 and one from 2016.
In the 1950s, a young woman who comes to New York City for a secretarial course ends up befriending the maid where she’s whisked off into a world of jazz and intrigue.
More than half a century later, Rose Lewin is mourning the end of an affair, and working in a digital media job she hates after being fired from a broadcast news station. She’s intrigued by the rumors, particularly those involving a particular resident in a rent-controlled apartment.
As Rose’s interest deepens, the ethics of her investigation become murky, and the results can potentially change the lives of both women once it’s revealed.
I absolutely loved The Dollhouse. It was one of those books that made me think about how what it means to be a woman has changed. Darby’s world is so different compared to Rose’s in some ways, and yet it is still exactly the same in others.
The very start of the book, which takes place in 2016, starts with the line: “She’d forgotten the onions.” Then it proceeds to launch into how Rose’s married boyfriend loved her risotto and this is the key ingredient.
This is a scene I’ve seen before, but when you compare the introduction to Rose with the introduction we get to Darby in Chapter 2, it almost feels like it should be reversed. Darby, by contrast, is hopeful, arriving in New York ready to start a new chapter in her life as she starts secretarial school.
The mystery about what happened in 1952 is very interesting and it kept me reading. Especially after we meet Esme, the maid. Esme has dreams, and she’s this bright flamboyant character who comes right off the page and disrupts everything that Darby thinks he wants out of life. Once we meet Esme the plot moves along briskly and I can’t help but keep turning the pages if only to see how the whole story plays out.
We can’t ignore the central character of this book, which is really the building. The Barbizon Hotel for Women is a real place that housed people such as Grace Kelly and Liza Manelli on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and it is in fact, a condo today called Barbizon 63.
It’s easy to walk through New York City and not see the history in these buildings, and I think that one thing Fiona Davis accomplishes is creating a personal and relevant link to that not-so-distant past through two beautifully constructed characters.
As much as I appreciated the mystery and the suspense of this novel, I think a part of why I kept reading was just to see how these women would connect with each other, and I wasn’t disappointed.
There is honestly so much that I want to say about this book, but I can’t because I would give away the ending.
So, I will say this: if you like historical fiction, this is a great book with a dual narrative. If you don’t like historical fiction, this is a great book with a dual narrative. If you just want to read a book that compared the different expectations of women between the 1950s and the present day, this is a great read. If you have a secret, or more overt, interest in New York City architecture, this is a good fiction book for that.
Really, just pick it up. It’s a good story, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
FINAL RATING: 4 Stars