I love when I can get my hands on a book soon after it’s published, because it makes me feel like I’m on the cutting edge of something. That being said, I am pretty set in my reading ways, and rarely keep on top of the newest releases. In the case of The Dollhouse, I was able to read a book that not only appealed to me, but could also be considered new. I’d already heard advanced praise for Davis’ debut novel, so I’ll be the first to admit I went into this with high expectations. I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed.
The Dollhouse takes place in New York City, but in two different time periods. One narrative follows a young Darby McLaughlin, who has just arrived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in September 1952. She’s been sent to the city by her mother to attend secretarial school and get an office job, which most girls in her program use as the means to the end goal of marriage. In her attempts to defy gender stereotypes and societal expectations, she befriends boisterous and charming Esme, a hotel maid. She begins to neglect her classes in favor of late nights spent at the Flatted Fifth, a downtown jazz club where Esme works and sings. There she meets the son’s owner and head chef, Sam, and learns what she really wants to do with her life in New York.
The alternating story line takes place in the present day and follows Rose Lewin, a former newscaster who’s resorted to writing for online outlet WordMerge. The story opens on a crossroads in her life when she is unappreciated at work, dumped by her boyfriend (for his ex-wife), and watching her father die. But, she lives in a condominium that used to be the Barbizon Hotel, and when she meets an elderly resident, she sees the potential to write a story about the former grandeur of the building. This turns out to lead down a much more dramatic road than she or her partner Jason could expect.
As each story progresses, the reader learns about what led to the tragic events of Halloween 1952, and what makes them so noteworthy in 2016. I think what sets this book apart from a lot of others that try to the do the same thing is that Davis has impeccable timing. She knew exactly when to reveal certain facts, and who should reveal them. In this way, the reader feels a little bit ahead of the characters, but no so much so that when plot twists happen they’re expecting them. I felt myself pulled along the narrative naturally, and while the chapters didn’t end in cliffhangers, I wanted to keep reading to find out what new piece of information was going to spin the story in a different direction.
I do think Darby’s narrative was more engaging and compelling than Rose’s, partially because I’m over the hopeless 21st-century woman plot. I didn’t have a huge amount of sympathy for Rose, but I could see the parallels of her position in life, acting as the backup to a man, depending on him for status, money, security, etc. This was the exact thing Darby fought against in New York, and what she and the other elderly residents of the 4th floor had won independence from. On that same note, I like that the dowdy Darby was the main character, and unconventionally attractive Sam her love interest, because it made the characters more accessible to the common reader.
Overall, this was a very easy book to get into. The writing was simple but evocative, making for a confident but not cocky debut from Davis. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “easy reading is damn hard writing.” Most readers don’t notice when a book is a breeze to read, but they’ll recognize poor writing when it’s difficult to get through. However, I did wish it tried to reach a deeper conclusion than the one provided. I’m a difficult reader in that I hate a book that’s clearly trying to teach me a lesson, but I like the story to continue off the page, to make me think about it later. But considering that’s my only real criticism, The Dollhouse is perfect for morning commutes, lunch breaks, or other free-time reading that doesn’t require a ton of concentration.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dutton. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.