Review: The Dollhouse

Author: Fiona Davis
Publisher: Dutton
Published: August 23, 2016
Paperback, ARC, 292 pages
ISBN: 978110198499
Genre: Contemporary/Historical Fiction
Source: Publisher 


"The Dollhouse. . . . That's what we boys like to call it. . . . The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you." 

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.

My Thoughts

Built in 1927, the Barbizon Hotel for Women is the star of Fiona Davis' debut novel, The Dollhouse.
Throughout its history the hotel housed several famous clientele such as Sylvia Plath and Grace KelleyThis hotel has had a bit part in modern pop culture as well. Peggy from Agent Carter stayed in something similar in season one. It was no doubt inspired by this famous hotel. It's also been mentioned in Mad Men. 

Up until the 1980's the Barbizon was an all-girl hotel. Not admitting men past the ground floor. It was a safe place for women who were choosing a career over what was considered a "traditional" lifeThe hotel was also know for it's strict decorum in "conduct and dress." It's located in Manhattan. And it's at this hotel that this story takes place. 

New York City, 2016, Rose Lewis is a journalist who is working at a job she doesn't particularly care for. Her relationship status would be filed under "it's complicated" and she's caring for her elderly father. She's living with her boyfriend in a condo in the renovated Barbizon Hotel. It's here where she meets an elderly woman with a veil covering her face. From the doorman she learns the woman was involved in a bit of a scandal back in the 1950s. The reporter in Rose is intrigued and can't let this go until she finds out every last detail about who the woman is and what happened to cause her to wear a veil. 

New York City, 1952, Darby McLaughlin just stepped off the train from Ohio. Enrolled in Katherine Gibbs, Darby plans on making a career as a secretary. She's naive and has poor self-esteem thanks to her mother. After an incident on her floor with some mean girls, Darby is ready to pack it all in when she meets Esme, a maid at the hotel. Through Esme, Darby starts to break out of her shell and try new experiences. She finally starts to feel at home in Manhattan. But Esme has a domineering influence over Darby that starts to take her down a dangerous path.

This was a hard to put down book for me. From the beginning I was just as hooked with Darby's story as Rose is. The story is told through both Darby and Rose's eyes, alternating between past and present. Though decades apart Rose and Darby have a lot in common. Both struggling with their careers, both struggling with relationships, both mourning the parent that understood them the most. The Dollhouse is an outstanding novel that you're not going to want to put down. This is Fiona Davis' first novel; I can't wait to see what she writes next. 


  1. It's interesting to me when one book shares the title of a landmark book like THE DOLLHOUSE and yet doesn't share the themes or retell the story.


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