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Book Review: The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

“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.” Summary from Goodreads
This is a great debut novel by Fiona Davis that takes inspiration from one historic building and composes a mystery and love story. The Barbizon was an actual New York Hotel for aspiring young women in the 1950s with no men allowed above the ground floor – “The Dollhouse.” As curious as I was about the actual history behind the building after reading this book, I could easily understand how Rose, a modern day resident and journalist, became curious about a reclusive neighbor, Darby.

As we learn more about Darby’s history, we begin to get swept up in the glamour of the jazz clubs and New York City in the 1950s. We also see the struggles facing young women trying to make in the big city and live up to parental expectations – get a job to get a husband. Darby is working towards both. And so the mystery deepens, what led to the death of a hotel maid and what lead Darby to become such a recluse. Who is the woman behind the veil? Rose’s determination to find out seems an easy excuse for her to avoid the similarities with her own story and the implosion of her New York City dreams. I went into this expecting more of your typical, deadly mystery, in time for Halloween, but the nature of ending took me by surprise. Four stars from me.

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