The Doll House by Fiona Davis

The Dollhouse: A Novel by [Davis, Fiona]

After reading a description of The Doll House describing this debut novel by Fiona Davis as a period piece about the famous Barbizon Hotel for women in New York, and the generations of women who lived there, I thought “YES!”  A debut novel and historical fiction, how can I resist?  I turned the last few pages last night and decided this was not at all what was described or what I expected.  But, I was not disappointed.

The Doll House is  about small town girl Darby whose father has died and whose mother has used her insurance money to send Darby to New York to attend the Katie Gibbs secretarial school in the 1950s.  Darby lives at the Barbizon on a floor with all of the Ford models, as there is no room on the Katie Gibbs floor.  She never quite fits in and she doesn’t do well in school.  She meets Esme, a maid at the hotel, and begins to sneak out at night with her to a jazz club where Esme is the hat check girl and a singer.  Esme convinces Darby to sing back up, introduces her to Sam who soon becomes her paramour, and keeps her out late most nights.

The other half of the story is about Rose.  Her chapter opens with her giving up a broadcasting job to write for a start-up, breaking up with her live-in lover and having to move out of their apartment, which coincidentally is in the Barbizon.  Rose is working on a story about the Barbizon and its earlier residents, and thus the tie in with Darby and Esme.

We learn very early on that Darby now lives a reclusive, solitary life on the fourth floor, and never leaves home without a veiled hat.  Esme is dead–she fell from a window back in the 1950s.  The ensuing chapters bring you to these ending points.  There isn’t much mystery, and the “how” isn’t particularly page turning.  There are hints at a couple of directions the story lines might follow that do not pan out.  I wish I found more satisfaction in the growth of the characters.  My “hindsight is twenty twenty” analysis:  The Doll House is not the top of the to read pile but worth a try for someone who likes historical fiction and has no expectations.