"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' stunning debut novel pulls listeners into the lush world of New York City's glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where in the 1950s a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side by side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success, 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.
©2016 Fiona Davis (P)2016 Penguin Audio
I read/listen to 2-3 books a week, so I have sort of developed a way to categorize books after finishing them:
- waste of time
- worth a read but not for a whole credit (buy it on sale)
- solid book worth a credit
- worth a credit and telling friends about
I feel like this one falls into the 'buy it on sale' category. Interesting history, but not an experienced author and it showed. There were a few plot points that I felt weren't explained (can't elaborate without spoiling), and times that felt very 'Lifetime' for me, meaning silly/trivial misunderstandings creating the main obstacles for the characters. There were also parts that seemed to have no purpose - no character development, furthering of story, etc.
Would be a fine listen if you have a long drive - but wait until it's on sale.
The Dollhouse began with a fascinating story and was intrigued with the narration going between the two time periods involved in the story. The narrator was excellent.
As the story neared the final third of the book it became trite and predictable.
First I had to get past the voice performer. Tavia Gilbert does excellent and distinct character voices, but the two main characters she performs (Rose in the present and Darby in '52) were a tiny bit overwrought. But I hung in there figuring I'd get used to it, and I did. All the other characters were performed really well.
Then the story itself gets progressively more unbelievable as the book progresses. I might have been more inclined to suspend disbelief if I had liked the two main characters. I feel like I should have liked them but instead found them a little insipid. Way too many tangled romances going on, way too much naïve "country bumpkinness," way too much of women who have zero self-confidence and kind of despise themselves.
The book had enough going for it to keep me listening (I like the structure of a person in the present trying to solve a mystery in the past--and you get both POVs) and I won't return it, but it was ok at best. The publisher calls this a "stunning debut." In no universe could this be considered "stunning." Granted, I think there are people far less critical than I who will really enjoy it, but "stunning" is stunning hyperbole!
I just was not excited about this book. for me it was another book about a female journalist... I am trying to remember the other ones I have recently read... gone girl was one of them. sorry to be so critical, but this book, although I did finish it, didn't take me to another place. it was boring.
I was very disappointed in this story that seemed promising but played out like a bad Lifetime move, perky Nancy Drew, YA romance blend. The characters were one dimensional and I was disappointed in the lack of history and detail about the actual Barbizon and women's lives in the city at the time. The narrator was fine, but her overly perky performance only added to the effect of a bad lifetime movie.
The story was amazing a great blend of past and present. The reader did a phenomenal job at making all of the characters individual and distinct in their own way. I recommend to all.
MY RATING: 3/5
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 23, 2016 by Dutton
While living in her married boyfriend’s condo in the old Barbizon Hotel, Rose Lewin hears some gossip regarding a tenant who still lives on the 4th floor, Darby McLaughlin. Darby has lived in the Barbizon since the 1950s when it was a haven for women who were preparing to enter society life, either by learning a job skill (secretarial) or by meeting a man to marry. Rose learns that Darby was somehow responsible for the death of a hotel maid named Esme, and during that event Darby’s face was brutally cut, leaving a horrible scar that she covers with a veil at all times.
The book flips back and forth between 2016 and the 1950s. Most of the time, this format works out well and adds a nice layer of interest to a story. In this particular book, though, it all seems so disjointed and unnecessary. Actually, the present day storyline is rather arbitrary, bordering on uninteresting. I enjoyed the 1950s thread more, but even it was tenuous and strained at times. The two threads just didn’t flow together very well, in my opinion. I’m not sure in the real world that Rose would have cared enough about this story to devote so much time and effort to investigate it, especially when her editor wasn’t thrilled about the story, expressing it wasn’t interesting enough to publish. Which is pretty much exactly what I think about this whole story – somewhat interesting, but just not enough to make a whole book about it.
Another reason I had a tough time with this book is because I could not connect with any of the characters. Rose was not especially well rounded or absorbing enough to really truly care whether she succeeded in her quest for answers or not. Young Darby was mildly entertaining but needed to get a backbone and start thinking for herself – though maybe this was an intentional character trait to highlight the mindset of most young women in the 1950s, leaving most of the “thinking” to men… I just don’t know. Esme was the most interesting person in the novel, yet even she was a rather flat, predictable character.
What I did find quite interesting was the history of the hotel. The Barbizon was a real hotel, and the building still exists with most of the rooms having been converted into condos. The Ford modeling agency really did house its girls there, as did Katherine Gibbs College. In fact, many famous women lived there throughout the hotel’s heyday: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Cybill Shepard, Liza Minelli, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Joan Didion, Rita Hayworth, Sylvia Plath, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, and Cloris Leachman!
Long story short, this wasn’t a winner in my opinion. It didn’t hold my interest, and as a result, I can’t really recommend it with much confidence.
This book was given to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
More historical fiction books:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
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