Book Review: The Dollhouse

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After a wee wobbly start, this settled into an engrossing read! There was just a little wobble in the opening pages, like the mention of a “tastefully made quilt” in the same sentence while in the throes lovemaking. It was so odd and I hoped this wasn’t going to be the norm throughout the entire read. But it wasn’t, and even though it appeared just at page two, it did not set the tone for the rest of the book. The rest of the book develops into a “can’t put down” type of read!

The Dollhouse has two storylines – Darby in 1952 and Rose in 2016 – that merge to tell a must-read-to-the-end-to-find-out-what-happens-to-Darby kind of read. Darby’s story for certain is the stronger of the storylines, and once the pace to solve the mystery picks up, more time is spent in this time-frame, making it that unputdownable story.

The Dollhouse gets its name from the setting for the story at the famed Barbizon Hotel in New York City. The hotel was called “The Dollhouse” since it was the premier dormitory for women. It was also famous since Sylvia Plath stayed there for one month, and wrote about it in The Bell Jar. This is the time frame when Darby lives at the Barbizon, but has now become high-priced condos. Darby and some of the other older women from the 50s have been allowed to remain in rent-controlled apartments on the 4th floor.

Half a century later, Rose is living in the Barbizon with her boyfriend, the divorced Griff. Things fall apart for Rose however now that Griff has chosen to return to his ex-wife, leaving Rose fairly homeless. Rose, a journalist, becomes highly intrigued after meeting the mysterious veiled woman in the elevator with her dog. The mystery woman always wears a veil that covers her face and is quite reclusive. Rose learns from the door man that she is one of the original ladies from the 50s, and is rumoured to have been involved in the story about the maid falling to her death at the hotel in 1952.  Rose now becomes convinced this is a perfect story to investigate and write about, and it will also serve as a serious distraction from her personal life, which going to bits with increasing acceleration.

When Darby first arrives at the Barbizon, she is coming from small-town Ohio to attend secretarial school. Her beloved father has just passed, her mother has quickly remarried and ships her off to New York City to make something out of herself. Darby is awkward, uncomfortable in her own skin and to compound her awkwardness, she is placed on the floor with the aspiring models instead of the other girls attending secretarial school. The hotel’s maid, Esme, often comes to Darby’s rescue and their friendship blossoms, opening Darby to a whole new and exciting, and seemingly dangerous world (to Darby) of the city’s jazz clubs. Esme’s jazz world contains daring, drugs, danger, and…a guy named Sam. So what happened for Esme to fall to her death and how might the formerly dowdy and self-conscious Darby be involved?

As Rose continues to investigate Darby’s story, she becomes obsessively consumed by it, but also discovers she is gathering strength from her connection to Darby and her story, thereby learning to stand on her own two feet. All comes together in the end with a dramatic reveal. We learn of what really happened the night the maid fell to her death, and why Darby now keeps her face covered and talks to no one, keeping tightly to herself.

It truly is a gripping read that doesn’t allow you to put it down because you absolutely must find out what happens to Darby. The Dollhouse is an excellent debut! Thank you to Dutton and Netgalley (and Windsor Public Library for supplying the hardcopy).

Literary Hoarders Penny