Fiona Davis’s stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City’s glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where in the 1950s a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side by side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon’s glitzy past.
In The Dollhouse, I was caught up by the alternating storylines that swept back and forth in time. In the narrative voice of present day journalist, Rose Lewin, I felt for her situation as she waited expectantly for her lover of three years to come home from work, halfway expecting a marriage proposal. But instead, he told her he was going back to his ex-wife because of problems with his teenage daughter.
Then, almost without a second thought, he tells her a few days later that she has to move out. His family needs to move in.
I was stunned by her situation, since he had persuaded her to give up her apartment in the West Village.
But during her stay at the Barbizon condo, she had met an elderly woman on the fourth floor, the place where the long-term residents were allowed to stay after the building turned into condominiums. She was told the woman was named Miss McLaughlin. She always wore a hat and heavy veil.
Flashback to 1952, and a young woman named Darby McLaughlin found herself in an untenable situation. One partially due to being drawn into the world of Esme Castillo, a maid at the Barbizon who had befriended her when the potential models, whom Esme called “giraffes,” were pushing her around. Esme opened up possibilities for Darby, a part of New York she had never seen, a place with jazz clubs and interesting people. Darby had grown up in Ohio, and when faced with going back there, she hoped to find another way to stay in New York.
Rose is drawn into Darby’s story, but Miss McLaughlin has refused to talk to her. She decides to try again before leaving her apartment to stay with a friend, but instead, runs into Stella, another resident, who is watching Darby’s dog while she is away for a few weeks. She is in a situation, too, as she has to go to the hospital for tests and needs someone to watch the dog, Bird. She tells Rose just enough to pique her curiosity further.
Perfect, right? Somehow Rose finds herself watching Bird and bunking on Darby’s sofa. At work, she presents the story…and the video expert, Jason Wolf, is assigned to shoot film.
Can the two of them find out the mysterious story that someone has hinted at, involving a fall from one of the higher floors, a death, a badly scarred face? Who is Sam, the man with a mysterious book of spices, and an incredible ability to mix them? What happened on that roof on Halloween night? Why has Darby become a recluse?
By the time the final secrets are revealed, I did not want to let go of these characters…so intriguing, and so much a part of The Barbizon, which could also be another one of the characters. 5 stars.