THE DOLLHOUSE by Fiona Davis is a work of historical women’s fiction, in which the past and present are tied together by the iconic Barbizon Hotel and a handful of mysterious inhabitants that remained long after the hotel was converted into condos.
Told from the perspectives of two women living in Manhattan during two different time periods, the story unfolds through an alternating narrative between Rose, a present-day journalist, and Darby, a young girl living at the hotel while attending secretarial school in 1951. Present-day Darby becomes an object of mysterious fixation for Rose, when she learns that the veiled woman was involved in a scuffle in the 50s that resulted in a hotel maid falling off the roof, and the disfigurement of Darby’s face.
The reader is immediately immersed into Rose’s life just as it begins to fall apart. Her boyfriend of three years dumps her to pursues his political career, just as her father’s dementia becomes more severe and his care expenses rise, leaving Rose homeless with a low-paying job and little emotional support. So when she learns about Darby, the mysterious scandal becomes a welcome distraction that she soon pitches as a long form piece to her boss at WordMerge, a media startup similar to BuzzFeed. To sensationalize the piece, Rose’s boss insists that she work with freelance videographer, Jason to capture Darby’s unveiled face on film. Unfortunately, Darby leaves town before Rose has a chance to interview her, so she attempts to fill in the gaps by speaking with the other elderly ladies of the fourth floor, one of which, Stella is dog-sitting for Darby. As luck would have it, just before Rose moves into a friend’s apartment, Stella falls ill and asks Rose to step in to watch Darby’s dog—not only giving Rose a place to stay, but also access to clues that might help piece together Darby’s past.
1950s Darby also struggles with her identity as she moves from the midwest to Manhattan and feels immediately out of place. She finds secretarial school dull and repetitive, and the models living on her floor catty and unmotivated. She is taunted by the models and forced to hideout in her room until she meets Esme, an overly-ambitious Puerto Rican maid hellbent on becoming famous. Esme introduces her to the world of jazz and forces her outside of her comfort zone as she compels Darby to sing with her on stage, introduces her to Sam—her first love—, and even makes an advance on Darby herself. Coming from an underprivileged background, Esme will go to great lengths to earn the money she needs to propel her career, including double crossing drug dealers, which puts both her life and Sam’s at risk. Although Esme teaches Darby to dream big, when Darby becomes the main character in her own story, Esme feels threatened by her and becomes jealous of Sam. Esme knifes Darby across the face, and in an act of self-defense Darby pushes Esme over the edge. While Sam finds escape in California, the shame of Darby’s disfigurement causes her to lie to him and pretend it was her who fell off the roof. With the help of an old record, a hand-written book of spices, and a letter addressed to Esme, Rose eventually meets both Sam and Darby and pieces together the night that ripped them apart, which, in turn, brings them back together.
Davis’ writing is both subtle and attentive, creating descriptions that linger in the mind long after they’ve been read; for example, she describes how the doorman overplays his accent to charm the ladies and how young Darby thinks Eileen Ford is associated with the car manufacturer. She also shows great skill as she builds anticipation through both dialogue and action. However, I think Davis has more to offer with Mrs. Saunders and Jason, who are her weakest characters; a woman like Mrs. Saunders would have a few more personality ticks, and Jason’s character reacts too similarly to Sam’s. I also think that Davis underestimates her audience. While the final plot twist was refreshing, the clues that Rose finds along the way seem too easily discovered or are too obviously spelled out for the reader (reminding me of of Moonshine and Wall in the Pyramus and Thisbe play nestled within Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Some comparative titles are: Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan, Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams, and Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This title will also attract the audience of books like Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford.