One of my favourite books' genre is American fiction set in New York City in the 50s. I have now read a couple and the atmosphere, the jazz clubs, the independence of the women leaving their little provincial towns to find a profession in the Big Apple, just fascinates me.
The Doll House, which is a nickname given to the Barbizon Hotel for Women, is the setting for this novel which splits its chapters between the present and the 50s. In the present, Rosie is a journalist and she lives in a luxurious condo at the former Barbizon Hotel. She comes across by chance the story of Darby, an old lady who still lives at the hotel on the 4th floor together with a dozens of other old ladies who were given an apartment as former long term guests of the hotel. Rosie gets interested in to the story of the differences between NY in the 50s and now and especially in the secret drama that surrounds Darby, who has been cut with a knife on the hotel terrace in 1953 while a maid of the hotel was killed. In the 50s we meet Darby, a young girl sent to the Barbizon by her mother and step father to learn a profession as a secretary. But Darby is not really cut as a typist and she finds herself involved, through a maid/wannabe actress - Esme, in the excting NY downtown world of bebop music, jazz clubs, singing and exotic spices.
I loved how the novel gives to the Barbizon such a sense of a "home away from home" to these girls and even at present to Rosie, I loved the strength of these women in the 50s that left all they knew to make a career for themselves and had, even for a short period of time for some, the time of their life. Of course there are tragedies, and a deep sense of loneliness and, well, one of the most famous inhabitants of the Brbizon, for a month or so, was Sylviat Plath, who then wrote The Bell jar on the topic. I would have loved to be one of them, one of the assistant editors!
I just love NY and I particularly love the feeling of NY in the 50s for women, full of opportunities and freedom in a time where women were still the "fragile sex".
I would recommend this novel to readers who love a secretive and engaging story, who love NYC and who love the 50s. I would also recommend on the same topic the famous The Bell Jar by S. Plath, Searching for Grace Kelly by M,G. Callahan, both novels set at the Barbizon, but also the great The Best of everything by R Jaffe, which is not set at the hotel, but it is set in the 50s and is about girls who come to NY to look for a career.
“No matter how she had suffered, Darby hadn’t retreated from life after all. In fact, she’d embraced it. Quietly, carefully, but with dignity and love.”
Overall rating: 7.5 Plot: 7 Writing style: 7.5 Cover: 7
Title:The Doll House
Author: Fiona Davis
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication year: 2016
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.
Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After ten years, Fiona changed careers, working as an editor and writer, and her historical fiction debut, The Dollhouse, was published in 2016. She's a graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is based in New York City.