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The concept isn’t novel, yet it’s still so often surprising—and always, always, important.
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis embodies this theme in many different ways. Firstly, there’s the title itself. “The Dollhouse” was the nickname for New York City’s iconic Barbizon Hotel for Women– called such because of all the pretty young things that lived there. But the Barbizon housed more than pretty faces: from 1927 to 1981, the Barbizon was a safe, respectable haven for young women looking to make their mark on the city as models, actresses, editors, secretaries, or wives. Many were successful, including Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Candace Bergen– all residents of the Upper East Side’s most coveted sorority.
It’s a glamorous history, and what drew me to the novel in the first place. And in that regard, The Dollhouse delivered: I read it in one sitting, entranced by famous musicians in seedy jazz clubs, fashion shows in solariums, and the descriptions of delectable spice blends you can almost taste as you turn the pages. But looks can be deceiving, and The Dollhouse is so much more than glamorous. It’s a mystery; it’s an exploration of the changing rolls of women in the workplace, and what it means to be fulfilled as a woman; and it’s an ode to the many sides of New York City. And for these reasons, the Dollhouse is a novel that has stayed with me ever since I first read it over a year ago– and I know will continue to stay with me for a long time to come.
The Dollhouse is a dual narrative, centering on three fictional women who are tied together not only by the Barbizon, but by a hidden tragedy that occurred there. There is shy Midwesterner Darby, who arrives at the famed hotel in 1952, determined to become a secretary and secure lifelong independence without a man. Instead (in scenes that highlight the power of female friendship), she befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid looking to become a star, in spite of prejudice against her as a Puerto Rican immigrant. Esme introduces her to another, darker side of the city— not to mention a boy who just might change Darby’s mind about remaining single. Fifty years later, the Barbizon, now gone condo, is home to journalist Rose, until she is unceremoniously dumped by her live-in boyfriend, leaving her homeless as well as heartbroken. She crosses ethical boundaries in her desperation to distract herself with a juicy story: the truth behind her elderly neighbor Darby’s rumored involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952. The tension of the mystery simmers throughout the novel and kept me flipping the pages as Darby’s and Rose’s stories intertwine to reveal the shocking truth.
Rose’s fascination with Darby opens her eyes to the rich history of the building, and her research into the elderly denizens of the Barbizon– like Darby, all single women who never left the former hotel, now in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor– inevitably causes her to look inward. Is this her future? Is she destined to be lonely and forgotten? Rose’s story is one that resonates in today’s world: What roles do relationship status, career, and autonomy play in living a fulfilling life as a woman? Can women “have it all” … and can they be happy if they don’t? As Rose digs deeper, including talking to Stella, another Barbizon resident (and one of my personal favorite characters in the novel!), she is treated to a wealth of insights on life, happiness, female agency, and empowerment… from women she herself had dismissed for their age and single status, for how they appeared on the surface.
And then there’s New York City. From the cloistered Barbizon (“God forbid we venture into the real world and buy something inappropriate,” a character named Charlotte wryly observes to Darby while they attend a fashion show within the hotel) to the uninhibited jazz clubs, from the city’s charms to its dangers, from the 1950s to today, The Dollhouse truly captures the beautiful, fickle, and ever-changing heart of Manhattan. It’s not an easy task, but Fiona’s passion for research— she, too, is a journalist— and writing skill bring the city as alive as any one of her nuanced characters (another moment here to appreciate Stella, for it is not only the protagonists who are incredibly drawn in the novel. I could take the time here to tell you why Stella is so fabulous, but a character that wonderful is best experienced for yourself).
When I first received The Dollhouse on submission, I knew it was something special. But looks can be deceiving, and I didn’t know just how special until I fell into its pages. I hope you too have a chance to read this glamorous, suspenseful, romantic, thoughtful, and affecting novel.
Learn more about the book below!