Fiona Davis’s stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City’s glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in the 1950s, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon’s glitzy past.
When she arrives at the famed Barbizon Hotel in 1952, secretarial school enrollment in hand, Darby McLaughlin is everything her modeling agency hall mates aren’t: plain, self-conscious, homesick, and utterly convinced she doesn’t belong—a notion the models do nothing to disabuse. Yet when Darby befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid, she’s introduced to an entirely new side of New York City: seedy downtown jazz clubs where the music is as addictive as the heroin that’s used there, the startling sounds of bebop, and even the possibility of romance.
Over half a century later, the Barbizon’s gone condo and most of its long-ago guests are forgotten. But rumors of Darby’s involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952 haunt the halls of the building as surely as the melancholy music that floats from the elderly woman’s rent-controlled apartment. It’s a combination too intoxicating for journalist Rose Lewin, Darby’s upstairs neighbor, to resist—not to mention the perfect distraction from her own imploding personal life. Yet as Rose’s obsession deepens, the ethics of her investigation become increasingly murky, and neither woman will remain unchanged when the shocking truth is finally revealed.
This book caught my attention right away with that great cover. I love books set in New York City, especially ones with a mystery at its core. The Dollhouse alternates between New York City in 1952, when Darby, a young girl from Ohio, arrives on the doorstep of the Barbizon Hotel where she’ll be staying for the next year while she attends secretarial school and New York City in 2016 where Rose, a journalist, is currently living with her boyfriend Griff in the newly renovated condos of the Barbizon. Rose soon makes contact with Darby, one of the elderly ladies who lives on the fourth floor and discovers that she has lived at the Barbizon since the 1950’s when she was involved in the mysterious death of a maid at the hotel.
The story starts off STRONG as I was immediately drawn to the characters in 1952, especially Darby, Stella, and Esme. The author did a great job of placing us smack into the setting of the Barbizon in 1952 which itself seemed to be a character in the book. The pacing was great and I was very interested in finding out what went wrong on that fateful Halloween night in 1952. Before that night, however, we get to know Darby and Esme and their struggles to be independent and to “make it” in New York City. We are also introduced to some supporting characters (Sam) who have their own stories that intersperse with Darby and Esme.
Just when we are immersed in Darby’s story in 1952, the time shifts and we are returned to 2016 and Rose’s increasingly bizarre behavior to get information on Darby and the mysterious death of Esme. I have to say, I don’t typically mind this technique of flipping back and forth between time periods, but for this story it didn’t work that well in my opinion and I’m not sure why. I found myself becoming irritated with Rose and her really unethical behaviors when it came to getting information on Darby. I think one reason I felt this way is because we were led to believe that she had problems at her previous job when she was asked to run with a story before it was ready and fact checked and she refused . But now she’s being extremely unethical, breaking the law really, and I just didn’t buy it. Maybe the character motivation was lacking for me I’m not sure.
So I found myself looking forward to returning to 1952 and the buildup to Esme’s death. I was fully engaged with this until about the last third of the book and then I felt that the plot and/or pacing began to drag. The large sections about Sam and the spices just, for me, detracted from my enjoyment of the story. It was at this point in the book that I felt the author began “telling” us way too much in terms of (Jason and Rose’s) theories about Esme’s death which actually made me somewhat confused. Between that and the spices, I felt my attention wavered a bit. As for the ending, I liked it but it seemed to wrap up too swiftly and neatly. I think if you like mysteries with unique historical settings, you should definitely give this a try. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Fiona Davis writes in the future.
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