Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Address by Fiona Davis

I just reviewed Ms. Davis' first novel, The Dollhouse a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to read and review her second novel, The Address.  Both novels are set in New York City, and I've realized I enjoy reading about historical NYC.  I think it's fascinating to explore the history of famous buildings with a fictional element added to what is solid fact.  

In The Address, we have a dual story line:  the start of the famous Dakota apartment building in 1884, and the Dakota in 1985, a few years after the death of John Lennon outside the front doors of his residence.  In 1884, Sara Smythe works as head housekeeper at a respectable hotel in London.  She's not happy with her boss, who is always looking to blame her when things go wrong.  Sara's very good at her job, and one day she crosses paths with Theodore Camden, an architect visiting from New York.  She saves his child from falling out a window, and he offers her a job at a new residence in New York City:  the Dakota.  It's a new concept:  an apartment building where the well-to-do own exclusive apartments, and the building has all the amenities:  a tailor, a dining service, servants for every floor (beyond the servants each family brings to live and work in their apartments).  It's a new kind of luxury for the wealthy of New York.  

Sara decides to take the leap and leaves London for New York City.  Upon arrival at the Dakota, she's a bit taken back by the location of the Dakota:  it's in an area that isn't developed, and a bit off the beaten path.  Sitting directly across from Central Park, eventually it will become a premiere spot, but in 1884, it looked like a big mistake.  

Sara's relationship with Theodore Camden evolves, and she finds herself falling in love with him, despite his marital status and the knowledge that there will be no happy ending.  Running the Dakota as the "managerette" is a challenge, but Sara is up to the task, and enjoys her life.  

Until she becomes pregnant.  Disaster.  Sara's life takes a turn for the worse and spirals out of control.  I really liked Sara, and hated to see her choices create havoc for herself. Her life was dictated by the morals of the times, society's rules, and the limitations of being a single woman with no family.  

1985 Dakota is still an exclusive apartment building, but it has lost a bit of luster, and has become infamous as the place where John Lennon was shot in 1980. Bailey Camden is fresh out of rehab; she has lost her job as an interior designer, and has nowhere to go.  She ends up at the Dakota, staying with her cousin Melinda Camden, who is the great granddaughter of Theodore Camden.  She lives in the same apartment that Theodore did in 1884, and it's also the place where Theodore was murdered in 1885.  Melinda is total 1980's excess:  lots of partying, drinking, and drugs.  Bailey struggles to stay sober, and her family's sad history is something she's struggling to overcome.  Her grandfather was raised as a Camden, but was actually a ward of Theodore and his wife.  He left the Dakota at 15 and became a mechanic in New Jersey, living his life in bitterness after not receiving any kind of inheritance while Melinda's grandfather and great aunt received everything. Melinda hires Bailey to completely redo the apartment into a horrible faux marble monstrosity, and Bailey takes the job in order to get back on her feet. 

While Bailey is going through old trunks in the basement of the Dakota, she finds clues to the Camden family history that creates more puzzles than answers.  Who was Sara Smythe, and who killed Theodore?  

Sara's story is so darn good.  I couldn't get enough of her.  It was kind of hard to get into 1985; maybe because for me, it's recent history--I was just out of high school in 1985!  But the early history of the Dakota, and the history of Blackwell's Island ( I can't tell you--you'll have to read the book!) is exactly the type of history I love to read about. 

Now that I've read both of Fiona Davis' novels, I am a firm fan.  What I like most, of course, is the history.  She's got an unlimited treasure trove of potential material just in NYC with so many wonderful buildings.  Her characters are strong, but flawed.  Life is messy, and a happy ending is not guaranteed. Her novels are also a history of women fighting to be seen and heard; to have the freedom to live life without societal strictures and rigid rules.  We forget sometimes today how tough it was for women to have such limited choices, and to be dependent on family and husbands to have a comfortable life. 

Both The Dollhouse and The Address are standalone novels, so you don't have to read one before the other.  I recommend both for anyone who likes to read about New York City, history, and strong female characters.  There is an element of reality in both novels that I found refreshing.  It's all well and good to read novels where everything always works to a happy conclusion, but sometimes I enjoy reading novels where the conclusion leaves me satisfied knowing everything ended as it should.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  

A huge thank you to Dutton (Penguin/Random House) for a review copy of this novel.  

Rating:  4/6 for a gripping read about the Dakota apartment building in NYC, both past and present.  Sara's story was hard to put down, and the links to Bailey's life in 1985 NYC helped create a "whodunnit" element that carried the story along. 

1 comment :

  1. Have you read "Lillian Boxfish takes a walk"? It is a must is you enjoy historical New York.