Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

1952 New York City must have been a pretty cool place.  Certainly it was a lure to those who wanted to make it on their own, or make it big.  It was a place for young women to escape their hometowns and experience freedom, within the confines of 1950's ideals, of course.  

The Dollhouse was certainly a refreshing break from my usual historical fiction.  Yes, this is a dual-history novel; it takes place in 1952 and 2016.  I usually don't read much about mid-twentieth century history; it's just not a time that appeals to me.  But I was intrigued by the idea of a women's hotel in 1952, and I'm glad I read this novel. I had no idea where the story would take me, and it definitely surprised me.

Darby McLaughlin is a young woman from Ohio, sent to New York City by her mother to live at the Barbizon Hotel, a place where young women stayed while attending modeling school, secretarial school, or other suitable educational avenues for a young woman in 1952. Of course, it was understood that this was just a way to meet a man and get married.  Darcy, a shy young lady very conscious of her mother's disappointment in her, comes to NYC to attend the Katie Gibbs school for secretaries.  She hopes to return to Ohio after a year of school, find a secretary job, and quietly live her life.  Unfortunately for Darcy, her small room is on the same floor as the modeling school beauties, who make her feel less than welcome.  Esme, a young maid and elevator operator at the Barbizon, befriends Darcy, and this is where Darcy's life changes.

The other part of the story begins in 2016 with Rose Lewin, a woman who lives with her boyfriend in the Barbizon building, which is now expensive apartments.  A few women who lived at the Barbizon in the 1950's continue to live there in small rent-controlled apartments.  The mysterious woman who lives directly underneath Rose's apartment wears hats and veils that shield her face, and doesn't talk to anyone when she takes her dog outside every day.  Rose's life is in flux; her boyfriend decides to return to his wife, and kicks Rose out of his apartment.  Struggling to take care of her ailing father; with no place to live, and a job as a journalist at a questionable online news site, Rose is looking for something that will kick start her career again and give her some choices. 

Enter that mysterious woman.  It's Darcy; she's lived at the Barbizon since 1952, and a mystery surrounds her that Rose wants to solve.  Darcy was involved in the unfortunate death of a maid at the hotel, and Rose wants to write a story about it.  Only problem is that Darcy has left the city, and Rose has to wait her out.  Meanwhile, Rose interviews the other elderly women, and begins to get the real story of the Barbizon Hotel during its heyday.  It was not, as people thought, a place full of genteel, well behaved young women.  People are people, after all, no matter what the time period.  

Rose identifies with Darcy, and becomes entangled in her tale as she waits for Darcy to return to her apartment.  Rose's ethics are questionable; her unhappiness spurs her into doing things that she normally wouldn't do. Rose's ethical choices connect her to Darcy's story; otherwise the novel wouldn't work. As the story flips between 1952 and 2016, we see Darcy and Esme's friendship deepen, Darcy meeting the sweet young cook Sam, and Darcy frequenting the Flatted Fifth, a jazz club with some seedy undertones. The feeling that you're on a journey that isn't going to end well keeps growing. 

The story is compelling, and I couldn't stop reading it.  There are some twists that were unexpected; but I figured out that was because I was also lulled into the assumption that young ladies in the early 1950's were always well-behaved and proper.  My bad!  

Rose was a bit confusing to me.  On one hand, she seemed very mature and put together.  But being dumped by her boyfriend really seemed to reveal a heck of a lot of insecurities and unhappiness that must have been festering for a long time.  There wasn't any sense of female empowerment with her until the very end.  Darcy was definitely a complex character; New York City brought out her real personality, only to see it dampen after the dramatic events of 1952.  She was a mix of wanting to do the right thing and fulfill other people's expectations, and wanting to be herself and doing what made her happy.   

I think this would make a good book club selection.  There is certainly enough to discuss, just in the characters of Rose and Darcy.  The Barbizon is an actual building in NYC, now known at the Barbizon 63.  It's on the National Register of Historical Places and was home to many famous women over the years.  

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining dual-time period novel about 1950's NYC and the struggle of women to break free of expected societal roles.  The life of Darcy was certainly one that kept me reading late into the night.  A good book group choice--so many things to talk about, and a great historical background as well.  I'll read more from Fiona Davis!

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and e-book.

A big thank you to Penguin/Random House for a preview of this novel. 

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