Fiona Davis’ The Dollhouse is both a mystery and a female-led coming-of-age summer read. The eponymous dollhouse is the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women, a place where young unmarried women in the early parts of the 20th century stayed while making their way in New York City. Whether they were models or attending secretarial schools for girls, for the most part the dollhouse was a temporary stop on the way to an advantageous marriage; Darby McLaughlin, however, was not interested in such a fate. In the present day, the hotel has turned condo and journalist Rose Lewin, fresh from a ‘disgrace’ at her network job, lives a quiet life with her politician boyfriend Griff on the fifth floor. Her chance encounter with a mysteriously-veiled and reclusive Darby on the elevator one day is the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Rose is determined to find out about the women of the fourth floor who somehow never left the Barbizon. Especially intriguing is Darby herself, rumored to have been involved in a skirmish on the rooftop terrace that left a maid dead and her own face scarred for life over 50 years ago.
I am decidedly ambivalent about this book. I just finished it so perhaps my thoughts will become more eloquent when I have some distance, but at present, I just feel like “well, that happened.” I’m going to approach the two timelines separately, as I think each one has its own merits and flaws.
Our main character, Darby, suffers from incredibly low self esteem, the result of being raised in a loveless marriage. Her father has died and her mother has remarried a verbally and physically abusive asshole and now Darby is in New York, on her own. Her mother has shipped her off to secretarial school as a way to be rid of her really. All this comes through in Darby’s inability to trust that people can actually enjoy her company for who she is as well as an extreme naïveté. I both empathized with Darby (we’ve all felt really down about ourselves at some point in our lives) and found her irritating at the same time. I wish I could pinpoint exactly what irritated. I guess it was that even when she began standing up for herself, it was never her own idea she was protecting. She either got her strength from her friend Esme, or her love interest Sam.
Esme, the walking stereotype Puerto Rican maid, is overbearing, aggressive, ambitious and untrustworthy. She is spunky in the way that all Latina characters everywhere are spunky. Her good qualities are that she pushes Darby out of her shell and stands up to the models on Darby’s floor when needed. She is the maid that died in the fall on Halloween in 1952, so you’re also not so inclined to get attached to her as it is.
Sam is the son of a nightclub owner with ambitions to own his own restaurant some day. He is probably the best character in the novel. He likes Darby for who she is and encourages her to set herself free from everyone and make her own fate.
The storyline is sort of meandering and just when it’s getting exciting, we often switch to 2016. I think the novel would have been better served to remain in this timeline, though the mystery then would have disappeared.
Rose is a journalist slumming it at a media startup for shitty pay. Her boyfriend is a lame local politician who dumps her most likely because a married politician is a better candidate and his daughter is having a mental health crisis and it would just look better if he went back to his ex-wife. The fact that she cannot see what a douche this guy is makes me question her intelligence in general. She is nosy, which I suppose makes her a good journalist. Her father is suffering from dementia and dying and once Griff kicks her out she has nowhere to live and begins a sad spiral that leads to her clinging to Darby’s story as a life raft.
Jason is the photojournalist/cameraman she is assigned to work with on the story of the Barbizon ladies and eventual love interest. He is better for her but is also kind of vanilla. I like vanilla, just saying.
Rose’s story mimics Darby’s in some ways and by the end of the novel, Rose has grown and learned things.
This timeline would have also been interesting on its own, but then again the story Rose is attempting to write would have also had to exist. I guess separating the timelines wouldn’t have worked.
I didn’t love this book but I didn’t dislike it either. I think now having listed my thoughts on the two timelines I have realized that what bothers me about this book is that it doesn’t really wow me. It’s ok. I read it pretty quickly, and found it entertaining enough to finish. I think it would actually make a better movie than a book – I wonder if someone is working on that.