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The Dollhouse


The Dollhouse

Rose Lewin left a burgeoning career in TV news to write for WordMerge, a hipster-ish website that aspires to feature serious journalistic pieces. At least that’s what 20-something wunderkind/trust-fund-baby/Editor-in-Chief Tyler claims. In addition to the new job, Rose has high hopes that her boyfriend, Griff, will settle in to their new apartment in the famous Barbizon. The building is prominent in urban lore as the residence for young single women from 1927 until 1981, and gained the nickname “The Dollhouse” after the young residents who lived within its walls. Sylvia Plath resided there for a month during her Mademoiselle magazine internship (and shortly before the nervous breakdown she faithfully chronicled in THE BELL JAR). Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Liza Minnelli and Candice Bergen were all Barbizon girls.

And now, Rose was beginning her life with Griff in the famed building. But much like her job, she’s starting to see the cracks in the façade of their relationship. Shortly after they move in, Griff tells Rose that he’s going back to his ex-wife to help her with their difficult teenage daughter, Miranda. Rose is beyond flabbergasted by this news and finds herself completely untethered. Adding to all this upheaval, her father’s health is steadily failing. Her only saving grace is working on a piece she pitched to her new boss about the historical building in which she lives and a mysterious death that occurred there years before.

"Fiona Davis’ debut novel deftly blends the contemporary and mid-century storylines to form a wholly absorbing and entertaining read."

Thanks to her chatty Irish doorman, Patrick, Rose learns about the mystery surrounding one current resident, Miss Darby McLaughlin, her downstairs neighbor. Patrick reveals that Miss McLaughlin, an elegant woman in her late 70s or early 80s, is a throwback to the old days of the Barbizon Hotel. She was one of the scores of young women who moved here in the 1950s to attend the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. One floor was dedicated to these students, while another floor was entirely populated by the beautiful young woman who worked for the Ford Modeling Agency. Apparently, Darby and a maid from the hotel were involved in a scuffle on the terrace that ended with Darby being slashed in the face and the young maid falling tragically to her death. “She was left disfigured, horribly scarred. Poor, poor Miss McLaughlin…. Hasn’t once shown her face to the world again…” Patrick confided, explaining Darby’s penchant for always wearing a hat with a veil to conceal her scarred face. Convinced there’s a story here, Rose decides to write about Darby, as well as the other women who called the wonderful old building home.

However, getting an interview with the reclusive older woman proves easier said than done. After ignoring her initial requests, Rose decides to ask Darby to sit for an interview face-to-face, but to no avail. She soon learns from Darby’s neighbor, Stella, another older woman who has lived in the building for decades, that Darby left suddenly for a few weeks, leaving Stella to care for her dog, Bird. But when Stella falls ill and is admitted to the hospital, Rose is called in to help care for the dog. With the key Stella provided, Rose lets herself into Darby’s apartment to get provisions for Bird. And given the fact that Griff has told her that she has two days to move out, since his ex-wife is going to move in to their apartment, Rose decides to camp out on Darby’s couch. Unethical? Yes, but she can care for Bird and still work on the Barbizon article.

Alternating with Rose’s story, we learn about Darby’s journey, from life with her demanding mother and stepfather in Defiance, Ohio, to venturing to New York City in the early 1950s to attend the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. Darby is a sensitive young soul of 17 when she arrives in the big city, and being placed on the floor with the models instead of her classmates does nothing to help her feel more at ease in this strange new environment. Soon she befriends Esme, a beautiful, ambitious girl who works at the Barbizon as a maid. Through her new friendship with Esme, Darby discovers the delightful but dangerous world of downtown. Esme has her sights on being a jazz singer and actress, and brings Darby with her to the Flatted Fifth, a jazz club on the Lower East Side where she works as a coat-check girl and occasionally gets a chance to sing.

Darby begins to contemplate a world beyond the Barbizon, a world filled with excitement and romance, especially when she meets Sam, the club owner’s handsome son who dreams of owning his own restaurant someday. So how did all these dreams come crashing down that one fateful night in 1952 that resulted in Esme’s death? Rose is hell-bent on finding out. Maybe by sorting out the mystery of that night, she then can figure out what to do with her own complicated life.

Fiona Davis’ debut novel deftly blends the contemporary and mid-century storylines to form a wholly absorbing and entertaining read. Fans of Lily Koppel’s THE RED LEATHER DIARY and Elizabeth Winder’s PAIN, PARTIES, WORK: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 will devour this period fiction mingled with twists and turns that keep the reader engrossed until the very last page.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on August 24, 2016

The Dollhouse
by Fiona Davis

  • Publication Date: July 11, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1101985011
  • ISBN-13: 9781101985014