Fiona Davis employs a similar writing style to early Jojo Moyes novels: two interconnected stories with strong female protagonists told decades apart. Unlike Moyes Davis also weaves in real historical landmarks, fictionalized versions of real people as well as characters who are based on real people.
The Dollhouse is the story of recently dumped journalist, Rose Lewin in the present day investigating the past lives of the women who lived in the famed Barbizon Hotel. Rose becomes instantly drawn into the story of Darby McLaughlin, a reclusive woman with a scar on her face who lived in the hotel in 1952 and was on the roof when a hotel maid, Esme, jumped to her death.
Rose forms a congenial relationship with Stella, Darby’s only friend, and ends up pet sitting for Darby when Stella has a medical emergency while Darby is out of town. Rose uses this unfettered access to Darby’s personal property to delve deeper into the mystery of the death of Esme and flesh out her article.
“Courage is easy when the other choices are folding sheets and dealing with guests all day. When you want to get out of a situation fast, you get courage.”
In 1952 Darby McLaughlin has moved to New York for secretarial school and is staying in the women’s only Barbizon Hotel. After a rocky start trying to fit in with the other tenets Darby finds herself gravitating towards the vivacious maid, Esme, who introduces her to jazz nightclubs and a handsome cook named Sam. Stella, then a beautiful model staying at the hotel, cautions Darby against getting too close to Esme but Darby is finally doing something for herself and cannot be swayed.
For every discovery Rose makes in the present regarding Darby, Esme and Sam the reader learns a little bit more through Darby’s eyes in the past. Eventually the mysterious circumstances of Esme’s death is explained and how it goes hand in hand with Darby’s reclusive behavior in the present day. Davis does a good job of weaving past and present together although her big reveal was not as good as it could have been.
Since I enjoyed The Dollhouse I decided to give a few more Fiona Davis novels out. The Address tells the story of the Dakota Apartment building (where John Lennon died) through the eyes of recovering drug addict Bailey Camden in 1985 and Sara Smythe, the hotel’s first manageress in 1885.
After rehab Bailey loses her job as an interior decorator but her (not blood related) cousin is renovating her family’s property, the Dakota, and hires Bailey as a favor. Bailey is heartbroken at the thought of changing the historical integrity of the Dakota but she needs the work and the free lodgings the job comes with. During her stay at the apartment she becomes fascinated with the history of the building including the murder of architect Theo Camden and the hands of Sara Smythe.
One hundred years in the past Sara Smythe is wooed away from her comfortable job at a hotel in England by Mr. Camden after she rescues his daughter from a window ledge. The two develop a flirty friendship that eventually crosses the boundary into a romantic affair. Unfortunately, when things go missing at the apartment complex and Sara starts to act strangely she is arrested and committed to a psychiatric ward.
Eventually Sara makes her way back to the Dakota and Bailey learns what happened between Sara Smythe and Theo Camden in those final moments of his life- as well as how it may directly impact her own life.
While The Address was not as good as The Dollhouse it was still an enjoyable mix of history, suspense and strong female characters.
The third, and final, Fiona Davis book I read last month is set in Grand Central Station straddling the late 1920s going into the Great Depression and the “present day” of 1974. Clara Darden is an aspiring illustrator teaching part time at the Grand Central School of Art in 1928; thanks to the affections of a would be poet with deep pockets and deeper connections Clara is able to gain some traction for her work. While her new beau can open doors for her it is her fiery friendship with artist and fellow teacher Levon Zakarian that drives her portion of the story- particularly as the Great Depression encompasses the United States and artistry becomes a luxury few can afford.
Closed galleries, slashed museum budgets. No one in their right mind would waste money buying a painting these days. Artists were at the bottom of the food chain. They had nothing of value to offer; they didn’t bake bread or knit scarves. They put liquid on paper and watched it dry. That was it.
In 1974 recent divorcee Virginia Clay gets a temp job at a law office in Grand Central Station, unfortunately she is woefully unqualified and let go but a sympathetic HR representative finds her a position in the information booth of the train station. While wandering around the station one day Virginia stumbles across the now defunct art school and becomes intrigued by a sketch found behind a cabinet- a sketch that looks nearly identical to a painting being put up for auction later that month and expecting to go for tens of thousands of dollars.
Naturally Virginia and Clara’s stories overlap in a bit of a unrealistic manner making this the weaker of the three Davis novels following this past meets present formula.