Book Review: The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Brief Synopsis: A young journalist delves into the history of the famous former Barbizon Hotel in New York City, with particular interest in the life of a woman who has lived there over 50 years. This woman’s story is also told in alternating chapters alongside the modern character’s investigation.

Darby McLaughlin arrives in New York City to attend secretarial school in 1952. As a small town girl, Darby has never known material abundance, and believes herself to be undeserving of attention due to her perceived lack of beauty and meekness. However, now she is staying in the grand Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, surrounded by aspiring models and so-called career girls of several fields. She longs to fit in but believes it impossible. Her only hope for a comfortable life is to do well in secretarial school, a belief perpetuated by her mother.

More than fifty years later, Rose Lewin is a journalist whose life is in a downward spin, who also happens to live in the Barbizon. The one time hotel has now been converted into condos, but the history and grandeur of the building still manage to infatuate Rose. This interest becomes such an obsession that Rose gets permission to write a story about the long-time residents still living in the Barbizon, women who are in a way left over from the early days. Unfortunately, the story hinges upon an interview with one specific woman who always wears a veil, and whose face is rumored to be scarred from an incident way-back-when which ended in a maid falling to her death from the top of the building. Rose is certain she can get this woman to talk, but she disappears suddenly before Rose has a chance to talk to her.

The premise grabbed my attention. I came across The Dollhouse on one of those “Books You Should Read This Season” lists that appears periodically. Actually, another book by Fiona Davis was on the list, which also incorporated history, and after a brief amount of research into Davis, I decided to give The Dollhouse a try.

By the third chapter, I was ready to give up and move on to a more interesting book. The beginning is very abrupt, throwing the reader suddenly into the lives of two women they know nothing about, and attempting to force the reader to empathize with them in extremely distressing situations. It is not an inviting beginning. In fact, I almost gave up. But, I’m “one book behind schedule!” on my Goodreads yearly challenge, and I didn’t want to take the time to find another book when it would take less time to finish this one. So I kept going.

I was never able to connect with Rose in any way. She’s only about a decade older than I am, so you would think that wouldn’t be too much of an age gap, but her status in life is so far from mine that she might as well have been from Mars. Her way of thinking is completely different from my own, so nearly every decision she made I was left to sigh and roll my eyes as she dealt with consequences she didn’t see coming but I anticipated a mile away. The thing that got to me the most though was her consistent lack of ethics. The story is written in such a way that the reader is expected to empathize with Rose and understand why she does what she does (such as breaking and entering, repeated conflict of interest relationships, and dating a man who may have been married when they began their relationship – that timeline was never completely straightened out in my mind), but although I may understand her motivation, it was never enough for me to actually justify her actions. She, like all of the characters in this book, is reckless and selfish, looking out only for her own pleasure and frequently faking a legitimate interest in the lives of the people she interviews or encounters in everyday life. She is manipulative and short-sighted. What’s worse is I don’t think the author intended Rose to be seen this way. She is portrayed as a woman trying to find her way in life, struggling with changes in the industry she works in, and frequently (erroneously) looking to people to provide the anchor she desires in her life.

Darby, the historical character, is more complicated but not much better. She is introduced as a meek and shy girl, but her lack of confidence does not stop her from only caring about herself. She is a more well-rounded character, and does have moments where she does things for others, even to the point of potentially putting herself in danger, but ultimately that is not her default. Darby has had a hard life, and her aspect of the story hinges on finding out what she wants rather than what is forced on her. She doesn’t just stand up for herself though; she asserts her will just as strongly as the models who live on her floor. Her initial portrayal as bookish and quiet appealed to me, but this facade was quickly replaced by another reckless young girl, a persona she develops after being introduced to the jazz and bebop scene.

There are no morals upheld in this book, and everyone is out for their own good, no matter who they have to step on along the way. The antagonists are awful, but the protagonists also lack appeal. The plot, while relatively interesting, is overrun by the theme of selfishness. I acknowledge that the story is set in New York City, so I expected some sensationalism, but it is rampant in The Dollhouse. The history is intriguing, but not worth the tacky presentation.

I was disappointed in the immorality portrayed as acceptable, disgusted by the sensationalism, and disheartened by the direction both girls, Darby and Rose, decide to take for their lives. Not that having a career is bad, certainly I believe just the opposite. But their lack of a center, something to structure their beliefs and actions around, causes them to seek fulfillment in people who threaten (and sometimes follow through) to disappoint and jobs that cannot provide actual meaning in life.

I didn’t recognize it until just now, but this book follows the trend set by much modern literature: in the absence of religion or another structure to explain the world and one’s place in it, where can people turn to find meaning, and will it ever be enough? Darby and Rose present two failed perspectives on this.

I can’t really recommend this book, but it’s one of those sort of in-between books that I also won’t rail against at any point beyond this post. By the end I was just so tired of the characters and their consistently poor decision making, which is not the best note to leave a book on. The writing was well done, but the content was disappointing.

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