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The Dollhouse

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Fiona Davis's stunning debut novel pulls readers 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.

289 pages, Hardcover

First published August 23, 2016

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About the author

Fiona Davis

14 books5,596 followers
Fiona Davis is the New York Times bestselling author of six historical fiction novels set in iconic New York City buildings, including The Magnolia Palace, The Dollhouse, The Address, and The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which was a Good Morning America book club pick. Her novels have been chosen as “One Book, One Community” reads and her articles have appeared in publications like The Wall Street Journal and O the Oprah magazine.

She first came to New York as an actress, but fell in love with writing after getting a master's degree at Columbia Journalism School. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages and she's based in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,689 reviews
June 21, 2017
Rose Lewin has just moved in with her newly divorced boyfriend. A former network reporter, she is at a new job that she considers a career setback. At the moment, she is unsure of the decisions she has made in her life. She is living at the former Barbizon hotel which used to house women pursuing modeling and secretarial careers.

While walking through the condo lobby one evening, Rose comes across an unfriendly elderly resident. By way of the doorman, she finds out that this woman and a few others are long-term tenants of the former hotel. She learns that this woman was involved in an accidental death that took place back in the ‘50’s. Rose sees a possible story to report and decides to investigate this further.

As Rose investigates the death in the building we are introduced to Darby McLaughlin. With a flashback into 1952, she has just moved from Ohio to start classes in Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. Upon arrival, Darby is not treated nicely by the women on her floor. Having a hard time fitting in, she is friended by a maid at the hotel named Esme. Through Esme, she is introduced to a darker side of New York City. The more information Rose obtains about Darby during her research, the more obsessed she becomes with getting the whole story. We learn how Darby’s and Esme’s relationship develops, the accidental death, and who Darby is today in 2016.

The chapters alternate between present day and the ‘50’s. The stories of Rose and Darby are well interwoven. I enjoyed the creativity of the author in providing the reader with two parallel lives that ultimately converge into one. This book is filled with suspense, dilemma and mystery. The book also supplied interesting and informative detail on the lives of those living in the hotel in the 1950’s. This is a debut novel, and I look forward to reading more books from this author .

Paperback edition release 7/11 - 2 copy giveaway on my blog until 6/23 https://www.facebook.com/suzyapproved...
Profile Image for Chelsea Humphrey.
1,440 reviews78.1k followers
November 20, 2016
This was very realistic feeling historical fiction! I was immersed in the culture of the period and fascinated by the mystery and goings on of such a controversial time. I have never felt more grateful to be a woman in such a time as this as I am after finishing this book. Full review to come.

*Thanks Dutton for my copy!
Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 16 books1,515 followers
November 30, 2019
The Dollhouse is a smooth, easy and compelling read.
The book alternates between time periods and points of view. The points of view are clear and concise and held my attention. I really enjoyed both perspectives and time periods. Loved the descriptions of the hotel and the wonderful snapshots of the time period. It even had great smells, and lighting. This is a character driven story more about class distinction and its ultimate outcome. Rose is from a small town in Ohio trying to find her place New York. She is stuck between the working class, where she is trying hard to fit in, and with, “the Giraffes,” the models on her floor. She is in New York for a secretarial school but is stuck among the giraffes. Great scenes and conflicts. Well done.
The hotel (a real historical location) almost, but not quite, carries an equal weight of a character.
All the micro conflicts dovetail nicely into the main conflict, the forward motion of the story. There is a tasteful love scene with descriptions handled masterfully.
The alternating chapters shift between 1952 and current day. Each plot line is dynamic enough to carry its own story line--its own novel, and held my attention which is difficult to do jumping time periods. Each time there was a shift I wanted to stay in the story and not move to the next. Another sign of a master story teller. I also loved the way the story came together in the end. If I have any criticism at all it’s the last two pages after the book was over, they came off as a little too saccharine and unnecessary.
I highly recommend this book.
David Putnam author of The Bruno Johnson series.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,743 reviews2,270 followers
November 2, 2022

3.5 Stars

The Barbizon of 1952 groomed young women who were living away from home – the ever-watchful eyes of parents were replaced with a housemother’s watchful eyes, looking after all of the girls. Not just their safety, but how they would present themselves every day, eventually present themselves to the world, in a fashionably, socially acceptable, manner. Maybe most went there to find a suitable entrance into a society where they could find a suitable husband, but there were others who went to find another life. Some went in with one ideal, and left with another.

“The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you.”

It was a combination of a charm school / finishing school and girls’ dormitory, but it also had its own charms. Like Tiffany’s, the name implies the best of quality. It exuded glamour, class, promoting itself as an institution that attracted a “certain kind of lady.” Dress codes were enforced; residents were not allowed to leave the building in less than acceptable attire. In early 1950 this meant no pants, no exceptions. Among its list of to-be-discovered “dolls” include Sylvia Plath, Joan Crawford, Ali McGraw, Grace Kelly, Cybil Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Gene Tierney, Peggy Cass, Jaclyn Smith, Dorothy McGuire, Eudora Welty, Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, Molly Brown, the unsinkable, died there in 1932. The Ford modeling agency placed their models there, the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School placed their future secretaries there, safely supervised. An induction and introduction to their future life.

In 1952, the novel centers on Darby McLaughlin, who is a Katie Gibbs student, and Esme, a Barbizon maid. Darby is from Ohio and has never experienced anything like NYC, and Esme has lived and breathed the streets since she arrived as a child from Puerto Rico. Esme introduces Darby to a life outside her comprehension, seedy jazz clubs, each step outside Darby’s comfort zone. It’s dark, it’s scary, but it also has its own magic. The music, the way it makes her feel.

In 2016, Rose, a journalist, is looking for a story, happens to be staying in one of the apartments in the now renovated Barbizon – no longer just a haven for young women, it is now a modernized condominium. Rose’s life has just been turned upside down several times, and feeling like she’s just been tossed around inside a snow globe, her gaze lands on one of the women of the “old” Barbizon, still there, grandfathered in by New York’s rent laws. She wears a hat with a net veil down across her face, and Rose is seized by a need to know more about her. About the few women who stayed, who found a life there that didn’t include the then standard husband and 2.5 children. But how to convince these women to share their stories? She’s particularly eager to speak with the veiled woman– Darby McLaughlin – who seems just as eager to avoid her. But Darby’s story is one she feels drawn to; she knows there’s more to the story than the papers wrote about back then.

The characters are mostly entertaining, if occasionally trite, predictable. Most of this story it is compelling. At a point where, in most stories, I would feel more invested, it began to drag a little. Where it had once seemed to flow effortlessly, even with some rather hard to believe segments, it began to feel slightly forced. Some characters, some sections could have been removed completely, or their storyline ended earlier – for me.

Rose’s ethics seem fairly high, so it was noticeable when they change to somewhat questionable, but then again I really enjoyed the things she discovered, I felt that if they needed to have been added to the story when they were. A dilemma.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read. It’s a fun look at another era, another way of life. It was perhaps a bit more entertaining to me as my mother lived in a similar set-up as a young “Air Hostess” for PCA Airlines. The photos I have of them sitting around their room in curlers, or around the piano singing are priceless.

Pub Date: 23 August 2016

Many thanks to Penguin Group/Dutton, NetGalley and author Fiona Davis for providing me with an advanced copy
Profile Image for Molly.
129 reviews19 followers
November 2, 2016
I wanted to like this book SO much. It has so many things I love: New York in the 50s, a famous hotel for single ladies, a gorgeous cover, an intriguing historical mystery. And I did like it for the first few chapters...but then it started to go downhill.

First off, the characters are poorly drawn and inconsistent. There's Stella, who first knowingly sets Darby up with a guy who, according to his account, always ends up with "the ugly ones," and who also has a reputation for assaulting women. Then she runs off--apparently without her shoes--and leaves Darby in the park with the guy, without checking on her, or looking for her, or, y'know, warning her that she's on a date with a rapist. GOSH, WHAT A GOOD FRIEND. Most of us at this point would probably stay away from Stella, right? But not Darby. Nope, she continues to be friends with Stella, on into their 80s.

There's Esme, who seems to have been dropped right out of West Side Story into the Barbizon to be a maid in a dowdy uniform--a maid who doesn't seem to ever do any cleaning, between dashing out to auditions and drug buys, comforting Darby, and sneaking around the residents' rooms to use their record players. Then there's Sam, who was smart enough to foresee that Americans would someday love "exotic" flavors, so spent his time as a soldier in World War II collecting spices.

And of course, there's Darby herself, who somehow manages to combine the naivete of a sheltered Midwestern girl in the 50s with the worldliness of... I don't even know what. It didn't bother me when she overlooked finding Stella on the stairway with a man, after hours--that can't have been unfamiliar or unexpected, even to an inexperienced small-town girl. But then, after apparently not even knowing that lesbians EXIST in the first chapter, she's not surprised, let alone confused, when Esme--out of freakin' NOWHERE, btw--kisses her. She was brought up by an extremely protective mother, in the 40s; it's just not believable that she wouldn't have more of a reaction than she did, whether positive or negative.

And then there's the abominable kitchen scene with Sam. I can buy that a veteran (one quite a bit older than Darby, at that; the war's been over for seven years at this point, so he's no younger than 24, and probably older than that) might have the experience to perform that kitchen maneuver, but he's just not the kind of guy who would jump from first kiss to third base without so much as a dinner--and especially not with an 18-year-old "good girl." But the fact that Darby, who has surely been brought up to not even allow a kiss until at least the third date, just accepts it and doesn't think he's a total cad? Nope. If she had decided, as she decided to be a career woman who doesn't need a man to support her, that it was time to start experimenting, I would have bought it, but that wasn't what happened. And the foodie foreplay was just... ugh. There was some cliche about a groan escaping her lips when she tasted one of Sam's awesome spice combos that almost made me put the book down right there. Note to authors and editors: Nobody groans involuntarily when they taste food. Quit using that to signal arousal.

My character issue continues in the 2016 story. Rose regrets not acting with integrity--a mistake that got her fired--but then does something illegal, unethical, and just plain bizarre: She moves into a stranger's apartment, without the stranger's knowledge, and starts messing with stuff. She snoops through Darby's books, pictures, and documents. She sleeps on her sofa for two weeks. She presumably uses her bathroom, and her kitchen...ewwwww. And she justifies it as a way to get closer to the source of the story she wants to write about the women who lived in the Barbizon in the 50s. I kept thinking that at some point she was going to wake up from her fog of being dumped (in a way that seems unrealistic, although I know people--plural--who have been dumped in exactly the same way) and her grief over her father's condition and go "OMG OMG OMG I AM SQUATTING IN A STRANGER'S APARTMENT I MUST CLEAN EVERYTHING UP AND GET OUT IMMEDIATELY AND SEND A CHECK ANONYMOUSLY FOR TWO WEEKS' RENT" but SHE NEVER DID. Even when Jason calls her out, and Darby calls her out (and then, in that inexplicably forgiving fashion that at this point is starting to seem like an odd character trait, decides it's all cool), Rose never seems to quite comprehend what she's done. And then, instead of ending up lodging in a jail cell (which is where she would be if I were Darby) she ends up with a darling, affordable little apartment of her very own.

There's so much more, but honestly, at this point I'm just venting, because I wanted so much to love this book. But like so many others I've read this year that have good premises and intriguing settings, all the good stuff seems to be in the setup. The further I got in the book, the shakier it got. The plot became more ridiculous; the characters quit being people and became game pieces moved around on a board; the red herring was obvious and unnecessary. It felt--again, as many books I've read this year have--like everything after the halfway point was written and edited in a hurry. It's frustrating to get invested in a book and then have it just fall off a cliff (or a terrace) halfway through.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Alicia.
3,146 reviews35 followers
September 1, 2016

I keep starting books and just not feeling them, which honestly was also the case with this one, but I was determined to just finish one and to break my curse! The writing here is just awkward as hell and both storylines are completely ridiculous and full of majorly unrealistic moments. In the present, a woman living in the Barbizon (everything about her is basically a terrible rom-com, so I'm not even gonna get started) becomes intrigued by the mystery of one of the long-term residents, and that woman's story--of arriving at the famed hotel in the 1950s to go to secretarial school, though eventually things turn tragic--is interspersed throughout. This book is basically about a bunch of sad-sacks with a super stereotypical Puerto Rican friend for good measure. I just thought this was so dull and cliched, though I did chuckle a little when someone threatens to go to Gawker with a scoop--how untimely this book's publication was. Content warning for attempted rape. B-/C+.
Profile Image for Katie B.
1,294 reviews2,962 followers
August 28, 2019
3.5 stars

This is the third book I have read by the author, and not surprisingly, I enjoyed it. Most historical fiction authors tend to focus on either historical events or figures, and what I like about Fiona Davis is she starts with a building or location to feature and then builds a story around that. The setting really adds to the overall story and in many ways is like a character in the novel itself.

Back in the 1950s, New York City's Barbizon Hotel for Women was the home of many aspiring models, secretaries, and editors. Darby McLaughlin is the building's newest resident and even though she isn't exactly thrilled about it, she will be attending a secretarial school. She feels completely out of place until she meets one of the maids in the building, a woman named Esme. And boy, does Esme show Darby a whole different world than the one she is accustomed to, as she takes her to seedy jazz clubs. Over half a century later, Rose Lewin, is living in the same Barbizon location although now it's just a typical condo building. Rose is a journalist and after meeting her mysterious elderly neighbor, Darby, she is interested in writing a piece about her and the famed building. However, getting Darby to open up might be harder than she thinks.

I enjoyed the alternating perspectives of Darby when she was younger and Rose in the present day. I found myself equally interested in both of them as characters. I loved having some of the story take in place in the 1950s and thought the author did a good job showcasing what it was like for women in the workforce back then. My only slight criticism of the book is Esme as a character just didn't completely work for me. The few times my interest would start to wane was when she was involved in the story. Not sure why that's the case but regardless I did really enjoy this novel and at this point will read anything by the author as she is a talented historical fiction writer.
Profile Image for Tina Haigler.
293 reviews99 followers
September 28, 2019
"She'd forgotten the onions."

So how to describe this book...I did like it, but I liked half of the book a lot more than the other half. You see, this book is told in two POVs, and they switch every chapter. Both POVs are in New York City, but one is a woman living in the Barbizon Hotel for women in 1952, and the other is a reporter, living in the same building, now turned into condos, in 2016. Some of the women who originally lived in the hotel never left, instead moving into rent-controlled condos on the fourth floor. The reporter is intrigued by the horror of one woman's story, and decides to write an article about it.

I was really intrigued by our young lady in 1952, Darby. Her story was interesting, and her life was so full of possibility. She was sweet, awkward, shy, and extremely naive. However, her counterpart in 2016, Rose, was shallow, selfish, unscrupulous, and self-centered. I didn't hate her, but I certainly didn't like her. I would've liked the book just fine without her in it, or her being a very minor character. I would've much rather read about Darby's life in 1952, maybe a little filler from the years inbetween, and then a jump forward to 2016, and what happened at the end of the book. Darby's story was worthy of 5 stars but Rose's story wasn't.

So if you love historical fiction and how it ties into the present, or if you love New York City, the 1950's, or women's history, I would recommend picking up this book. If you hate reading about needy, obnoxious women, this one might not be for you.

"But every time Rose approached the building, she would stop and look up and think of them all, forgetting--for a few quiet moments--the steady stream of pedestrians who curled on the sidewalk around her."
423 reviews6 followers
September 16, 2016
Silly chick lit. Also another of those current day/historical period dual storylines that are all the rage. Had the author focused entirely on the 1950s, it would have been a much better book: more believable and less fluff.
Profile Image for Sandysbookaday is (reluctantly) on hiatus.
1,974 reviews2,041 followers
February 28, 2018
EXCERPT: "Patrick, when did you start working here?"

He turned to face her, eyebrows raised in surprise. She gathered that few residents asked him personal questions. "Back in the seventies. Things were very different then."

She liked the way things came out as 'tings'. "Do you know many of the older residents?"

"The ladies? Of course. I know them all."

"What about the woman who left a little while ago? The one with the dog."

He smiled. "Miss McLaughlin. And Bird. Odd woman."

A woman with buttery blond hair clopped toward them carrying several packages. Patrick left Rose’s side and scuttled over to her. Rose checked her watch. She really should get back upstairs, not stand around chatting, but Patrick quickly reappeared. "Can I get you a taxi, Miss Lewin?"

"No,no." She waved a hand in front of her. "I was hoping you could tell me more about Mrs McLaughlin."

"Miss McLaughlin." He was about four inches shorter than she was and he lifted his ruddy, round face to hers. "I don't like to talk too much about the other residents, you know. "

Patrick loved to talk about the other tenants, but Rose put on a serious expression and nodded.

"She's from way back, the fifties, that was when she first moved in. Came here to go to secretarial school."

"She seems like an interesting woman, the way she dresses and all."

"Not many friends in the building. Management can't stand her. She kicked and screamed when they said she had to move from her apartment down to 4B, with the rest of the longtimers. Threatened to call her lawyer. But she never did. In the end, I helped her to pack up and move. She's a retired lady, couldn't afford proper movers, and I was happy to do it. She always remembers me at Christmas with a card and a small token."

Apartment 4B was the one directly under theirs. The one with the music. "That was very kind of you, to help her move."

"Terrible story, what happened to her."

ABOUT THIS BOOK: Fiona Davis's stunning debut novel pulls readers 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.

MY THOUGHTS: 4.5 jazz trumpeting stars for The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis. This is a simply exquisite story divided between the early 1950s and the current day, between Darby McLaughlin and Rose Lewin.

I can't believe that this was Davis's debut novel. Her characterisation is masterful, as is her talent for setting the scene. The writing flows seamlessly from era to era, character to character. Davis brings to life the jazz dives, the condescension and petty rivalries between the 'Ford girls', or giraffes as Esme describes them, and the lesser mortals residing in what was the premier hotel for ladies.

The sharp contrast in lifestyle between the two time periods, and the similarities, are well used to further the plot which evolves into a mystery, and a romance, that had me hanging onto the author's every word.

I listened to to the audiobook of The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis, narrated by Tavia Gilbert and published by Penguin Audio via OverDrive. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.

Please refer to my Goodreads.com profile page or the 'about' page on sandysbookaday.wordpress.com for an explanation of my rating system.

This review and others are also published on my blog sandysbookaday.wordpress.com https://sandysbookaday.wordpress.com/...
Profile Image for DeB.
984 reviews246 followers
August 27, 2016
3.5 rounded up to 4.00 stars

The name, "Barbizon Hotel", for any woman who loves the aura of vintage New York, becomes an immediate lure, offering glamour, high society successes and the understanding of the privilege of being chosen as one of its lodgers. Ford models, Katie Gibbs secretarial students, Mademoiselle magazine interns and acting class students were safely housed in what was euphemistically named, in the 1940’s, "The Dollhouse", the slang of the day noting the rigorously chaperoned, attractive single women within.

Fiona Davis has given life to that famous building, neatly wrapping her fictional story around the actual history of The Barbizon Hotel. Casting from the present with Rose, a single journalist living in its present state as condominiums and back to 1952 to Darby, recently arrived for school from Defiant, Ohio, the author has created an intimate diorama where their stories overlap. In reality, the Barbizon's residents broke the rules; in The Dollhouse, mystery and intrigue are part of that story. New York has its glitter, its darkness and power, well evoked in the drama of the novel.

I very much enjoyed debut author Fiona Davis' attention to the details of the 1952 setting; the hotel as it was then, the cosmetics, apparel, HATS, and gloves so essential to a properly attired young lady. The restrictions, not only in their living conditions, but their life choices were keenly contrasted by Darby, in 1952 and Rose, in 2016, which was a very strong theme in the novel. Overall, a good little book with lots of information about the Barbizon Hotel, a compelling mystery and just the novel to accompany a pot of tea and your most comfortable chair.

Published: August 23, 2016

Review of Draft, from NetGalley and Dutton: Penguin RandomHouse Publishing, and thanks to Fiona Davis.
Profile Image for Glenda (on temporary hiatus).
250 reviews150 followers
November 5, 2022
So, I’m I’m New York City again with Fiona Davis. She’s one of my favorite writers of NYC history which is one of my favorite genres.

I’m rather late to the game but it was recommended by many of my literary friends that I always trust.

“Rich both in twists and period detail, this tale of big-city ambition is impossible to put down.”—People”.

This book weaves the stories of two entirely different women in a most excellent way.

First we meet Miss Darby McLaughlin 1952, who comes from a midwestern town in Ohio. Her mother has used all the life insurance money from her late husband to finance Darby’s education as a secretary and live in the prestigious Barbizon Hotel for Women.

Now, fast forward to 1962 where we meet Rose. Also a resident of the Barbizan, after the building becomes condos. She is living with Griff, the man of her dreams. Or is he? The word scoundrel comes to mind. And yes I’ve known a few. Poor Rose is kicked out of the palatial apartment and eventually loses her job. She has made friends with Esme,a maid at the Barbizon from Puerto Rica Esme commences showing Darby another side of NYC. The jazz clubs. Darby fall in love with the music, atmosphere and, oh yes, a handsome cook by the name of Sam. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems at the jazz club.

In 1962, Rose discovers a mystery from long ago involving Darby and Esme. One of the ladies is scarred for life and the other dead. Rose is tenacious in her search for the true story, along with the help of her photographer.

I did see some of the events coming, but I enjoyed this quite a bit. I would recommend it if you love NYC historical stories.

I’ve seen several people compare this book to “Rules of Civility”. I’m sorry but there no comparison to this book and Rules by the incomparable Amor Towles. I still read]ll enjoyed it.

If you really love a good NYC historical novel, don’t miss this one. It is simply wonderful.

Profile Image for Susan - on semi hiatus.
416 reviews112 followers
May 24, 2020
A dual story taking place sixty four years apart featuring two young women.

Rose is living in the former Barbizon Hotel for Women and is captivated by one of the long time residents. Reclusive Darby does NOT feel the same way and is resistant to any overtures by Rose or anyone else for that matter.

What happened all those years ago with Darby and the mysterious maid falling to her death? Why does she wear the veil covering her face? Rumor has it that she was disfigured.

Eighty two year old Darby still has a lot of life in her and she and Rose have much in common despite their age gap. Both grapple with life direction and the self confidence needed to advocate for themselves.

I love a story with personal progression and enjoyed reading about Rose and Darby as they navigated through issues with family, romance, and career.

Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,276 reviews558 followers
August 8, 2017
This was a toss up to rate it either a 3 or 4 star novel. I went with the 4 primarily because of the "feel" of 1952. Knowing little of NYC Manhattan hotels or rooming houses of that era, I still felt that Fiona Davis pretty well matched in clear prose the dichotomy of that particular decade. The gloves, the girdles, the posture, the "tone" desired for female workplace advance- nearly all of it. And especially in Darby's Mother, she grabbed that very common "what will the neighbors think" wall on nearly everything or every manner of doing. Not only for females either. It was SO much stricter and narrow, and I remember it pretty well. Even in our corner store, and NOT anywhere near high income surrounds, it was address. Miss, Mrs., Mr. etc. Sir, Mame- if you didn't know their surnames. And kids were NOT the focus of anything, least of all for specially planned child centered activities. I felt Fiona Davis was not over harsh in the choices and mindset of Darby either. VERY common.

But once again, when there are two switching time periods quite far apart, I often seem more invested of interest in one or the other. This time I found the 2016 and Rose's story nearly worthy of a speed read to get to the 1952 detail. Seriously, I doubt with that kind of work application and onus for her job that Rose would come close to "making it" within a 2016 NYC publishing or news "worthy" world. WordMerge itself- as bad as the current "news" quips and interpretations have become? I don't think she would ever make the grade. Her methods are devious and sneaky enough- YES! But her association and video/ copy outputs would never be "enough". I know, this is fiction and about the "feelings". Especially for the women towards their men.

The best part and the fully 4 star was the story of the Dollhouse Women's Hotel itself. I would LOVE to read a non-fiction. With the real dollars and cents of who is living on such rent controls now. Doubt it is even 3 people, if any at all. And if they are, I would love to hear this from the horse's mouth.

The one aspect that truly made me want to round down to a 3 star, was the ending. Not impossible, but very, for me, tasteless and just about a cop out. Too easy and it also rather unsettles the very core of Darby wanting more than just the role "cut out and planned for her". And Malcolm coming up with his brother after all that time? But then Bird made me want to go to 4 star at the same time.

Fiona Davis writes period chick lit well. Quirky enough to hold your interest, a tad bit too repetitive at the same time, but that's seems to be what many women readers like in these "getting what I want" stories.

Lastly, the character of Esme was a deep well she could have investigated FAR more. But didn't. That was a negative for me. This was the age of the bebop nasty drug demise as much as it is today with the opiod mess. At least in certain urban or occupation circles. And worse in health and outcome for women too, because birth control and medicine for disease didn't hold a candle to what exists today. It's interesting how she didn't ever "look" through Esme's eyes in this book, and only Rose and Darby had "voice". That's why it is chick lit genre and doesn't seem historical fiction genre. Except possibly in the most widest sense of "historical" as having some components of recent history. Davis didn't even put the real into the musicians' lives with dire outcomes or how much they were "outsiders" either. It sure wasn't one big party for them in any sense. And it was MUCH more "the other" in their identity to the larger society than musicians have it now. Any type of musicians. Even those who consider themselves goth or total form outlier style.

It's entertaining. 3.5 stars rounded up and I'll read her other one next. It's in the pile already.
Profile Image for Brooke Banks.
926 reviews175 followers
September 1, 2016
Another #ARCAugust read down!

Trigger Warning: Rape

I won a copy from Meaghan Walsh Gerard's ABEA giveaway.

First of all, the blurb is misleading. No, the “rumors of Darby’s involvement” DO NOT haunt the halls. No one knows or gives a shit. Rose only found about it by being nosey with the gossiping doorman.

And glitz? I didn’t see much glitz. There’s like one pricey dinner and a floor full of model ‘gazelles’ and that’s it.

The rest is spent in secretary school, a hotel room, and the jazz club. While the jazz club rocked, it’s drab like it’s supposed to be.

It wasn’t fun finding this out the hard way. My expectations were off and that’s the wrong foot to start on. I didn’t regret reading in the end, but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Hopefully, this helps ya’ll!

The Dollhouse introduces Rose as she’s preparing dinner for her and her recently divorced-with-children boyfriend. It’s a whirlwind romance and he’s coming home with news.

Quickly, it establishes Rose’s shame and mystery regarding why she left her TV station job. Yet I did not care and its subsequent reveal didn’t help Rose’s case.

It’s easy to see through the relationship bullshit while Rose is oblivious and doesn’t listen to her best friend, a catty soap opera star married with step-children. She’s so wrapped up in her romance woes and I did. Not. Get. It. I wasn’t sold on their romance in the first place so it was hard to be sympathetic.

I didn’t like Rose for most of the story. She kept getting worse until she finally crashed into reality.

From there, she made steps in the right direction, I just couldn’t forget everything she put me through. It wasn’t all bad though, I loved her interviews with people, her character progression and standing up to her boss. That glimpse into the startup e-mag was interesting. In the end, I’m glad she screwed her head on straight but I was happier to be done.

Darby’s tale kept the story going while Rose sunk to new lows. I loved Darby’s perspective of coming to New York City from a small town. Watching her explore, survive, and blossom was a thing of beauty. Except the fucking rape scene.

I couldn’t wait to see what she did next. Her love of bepop, relationship with a certain beau, and friendship with Esme were outstanding. It’s too bad Esme wound up as just another Spicy Latina. I didn’t see the twists coming in her tale, until the final outcome.

That’s when these perspectives switched roles: the past was a letdown and the present was pleasantly worthwhile. WC? I called who, how, and why once the drama was amped up and the actual confession reaction? “Oh.” That’s it. No oomph. No feeling. Just oh. Okay, anyways…

But once it’s clear what’s happened, they start wrapping the threads up in the present. It’s sweet and I loved seeing things righted. Not a bad way to end the book, but it didn’t make up for the ride there.

It’s okay, I guess. Nothing wrong with the writing, flow or anything, but I really did not like Rose and her downward spiral, which ended up killing the book.

Unless you have a specific hankering for this time period or Jazz and can like Rose or enjoy her terrible decisions, I’d pass on The Dollhouse.

If you want a contemporary drama intertwined with a historical mystery, I’d recommend June by Miranda Beverly-Whittmore instead.
Profile Image for Laura.
286 reviews
March 22, 2018
I have a few issues with this book. First, I couldn't bring myself to like Rose, the main character. SPOILER - She gets dumped and holes up in the apartment of her elderly neighbor whom she is interested in for a news story. Said neighbor has no idea someone is squatting in her apartment while she's away. Then at the end instead of being mad at Rose, Darby decides they are from similar circumstances so she will tell her squatter the details of her life that she's never shared with anyone else. Details that include accidentally killing her friend. Sounds reasonable. Most people would divulge such secrets to strangers who broke into their homes I suppose...

Another issue I have is with the buildup of the drama of the heroin ring and Esme. The whole thing didn't make any sense. Esme is caught because the police officer to whom she ratted out the members of the heroin ring PUT HER INFORMATION IN THE PAPER?!? That seems highly illegal and not to mention bad for business. No one is going to snitch if it's going to be on the morning news the next day.

My last issue (at least the last one I will write about) is the buildup of Esme' death. Throughout the story we hear there was a skirmish on the balcony and someone fell to their death. Well 300+ pages later I find out there was a skirmish and someone fell to their death. There was no big reveal, no crazy secret or misunderstanding. Just what they told you happened in the beginning of the story. Seems like a lot of reading to have no twist or development at the end.

Seems like a ton of people love this book so I might not be the authority here. But it has a fairly high rating so maybe I'm just a curmudgeon.
Profile Image for Marla.
1,260 reviews216 followers
September 14, 2016
I loved this book! It was such a fascinating story! I remember reading about the rooming houses in New York where women could go and there were set rules they had to follow. I didn't know this one was famous with several famous people living there like Sylvia Plath (one month) and Liza Minelli. I liked how the story went back in time to 1952 when things were actually happening to 2016 with Rose doing research for her article. The ending did have a twist and then another twist. This was so well worth my time!

I received this copy from Penguin Random House's First to Read program.
Profile Image for Cindy Burnett (Thoughts from a Page).
565 reviews979 followers
July 19, 2016
4.5 stars

The Dollhouse provides a fascinating glimpse into life at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the 1950s. The story opens in 2016 with Rose who lives in the Barbizon, which has been renovated and now contains high end condos. She learns that a few of the women who lived there until the hotel closed were granted rooms on the 4th floor so that they would have a place to live. Rose, who is a journalist, decides to pursue the stories of these women, particularly Darby McLaughlin. The Dollhouse shifts back and forth in time between 1952 and 2016. Fiona Davis connects the two stories seamlessly, and the effect is outstanding.

Davis includes so many entertaining details about the Barbizon (the Odeon chandelier, the art deco décor and furnishings) and what it was like to live there in the 1950s and 1960s – women living there could not cross the lobby wearing pants, only skirts. She also references the famous women who lived there such as Sylvia Plath, Liza Minelli, Candace Bergen and Joan Crawford. The jazz and bebop scene in Manhattan in the 1950s is included too with big names such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk making appearances.

The Dollhouse was a ton of fun to read and very well-written. I loved the story and was so glad I read it. Thanks to First to Read for the chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Bookish Ally.
497 reviews46 followers
February 26, 2020
Near the beginning of this book, I almost put it down as the characters seemed flat to me, failing to impress me as real. But I began to warm up. This is one of those books that has concurrent timelines, one present day and one in the past, in this case, 1952, and set in a women’s residency hotel (complete with matron for respectability’s sake). It’s a story that will use several elements of your imagination, to hear the music of the dark jazz club, to smell the spices that are set up in the spice shop that, and taste the combinations in food. The times were one for women of many rules, stated and implied, about how to dress, carry yourself, and dream of. The social hierarchy between women were petty and demeaning - and you were either a good girl or a bad girl, smart or pretty. All women were to get married and have children.

All in all, it ended up being a good little story, with likable characters (well, a few weren’t), some contrasts between the 1950’s and today, and the choices and freedoms we have as women today.

3.5 stars


Profile Image for Cammie.
360 reviews10 followers
June 1, 2022
Fiona Davis takes a historical setting and brings it to life with her fiction. The Dollhouse tells the story of the Barbizon Hotel from the 1950s and present day. Rose, a journalist who lives at the Barbizon that's now been converted into condos, discovers that one floor still houses ladies from the 1950s era of young women living in New York City as models and secretaries. She wants desperately to write an investigative story about some of the residents and begins to interview the original residents, unearthing drama and mystery that some of them probably thought would stay in the shadows forever.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
3,122 reviews29 followers
February 9, 2017
What a fascinating story. The Barbizon Hotel for women really did existing in New York City in the 1950s as did the Gibbs secretarial school for women. This story follows two entirely different women, one who lived there and one who worked there as well as a journalist in 2016 who comes across the story. It was very compelling, interesting and wonderful.
Profile Image for Nadia.
18 reviews37 followers
October 1, 2018
I think I've found another favourite author!
This is a beautiful dual-timeline story, set in New York in the 1950's and 2016.
Darby in 1952, and Rose in 2016 are both lovely and I enjoyed reading about their lives in alternating chapters.
I felt as if I was in 1952 when I read about Darby and i cared about her. Rose too in 2016 was also easy to like.
There is romance, mystery, a lovely old hotel called The Barbizon, which in the 1950's was called The Dollhouse because only ladies were allowed to reside there.
This book had me captivated until the very end and I look forward to reading more by this author.
September 3, 2019
Now I see why this book sat on my TBR for so long.

Dual timeline chapters - 2016 and 1952. However, the latter's far more interesting in the beginning, but falls flat as the pages pass, while the former starts and ends with a protagonist that's rather boring and tepid. Perhaps, Ms. Davis should have kept the 1952 story line, which had potential, if given the right space. The setting offered a picture Ms. Davis failed to paint, leaving me cold to all the characters involved.

Maybe after writing this one and getting lukewarm responses, Davis pulled the punches with her next novel, The Address, which I actually enjoyed between the two. Or, read Searching for Grace Kelly, which is set in the Barbizon (I don't remember if the name's actually used), and tells the story of young career girls living and loving within its walls.

*Homosexuality/bisexuality is used for drama and supposed gotchas, an irritant for those of us not happy to see the LGBT community used as a dramatic trope. Also, Esme is a stereotypical Puerto Rican, particularly with other irritating tropes, hot-headed, fiery, and of course, knife brandishing. Furthermore, I'm not fond of Charlie "Bird" Parker's tragic drug addiction used to dramatic momentum.*

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,469 reviews564 followers
January 30, 2019
This novel is centered around two young women who live in the Barbizon in NYC - in 1952 and 2016. I like NYC historical novels and really enjoyed the period detail. I've been fascinated with the Barbizon since I visited it when it was a hotel in the mid 1980s. The novel itself was fine and a breeze to read but I'm already forgetting it....
Profile Image for Judy Collins.
2,585 reviews361 followers
September 2, 2016
A special thank you to Dutton and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Fiona Davis’s debut, THE DOLLHOUSE, indulging and intriguing-a classic of the renowned historical Barbizon Hotel, a hotel for women, later known as Barbizon 63. The boys called it "The Dollhouse", packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls.

From the Roaring 20s through the 1960s, there was no address more glamorous than New York’s “women only” Barbizon Hotel.

A combined charm school and dormitory, it would shelter a parade of yet-to-be-discovered damsels—Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Sylvia Plath, Ali MacGraw, and many more—nurture their ambitions, and leave some with broken hearts.

Attracting the single elegant, and stylish, the Barbizon young women were chasing their dreams: stardom, independence, or a husband.

The famed Barbizon hotel takes center stage with a present-day journalist, obsessed with the secrets of one of the Barbizon hotel’s oldest residents. Told in alternating chapters of 2016 and 1952, The Dollhouse is a coming-of-age story, mystery, historical, and love story.

Davis delivers a dazzling multi-generational historical fiction, symbolic of the cultural change as women began to come to New York City for professional opportunities, but still wanted a "safe retreat" that felt like the family home, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

1952- Darby McLaughlin travels to New York from small town Ohio to enroll in secretarial school. Her father died, her mother remarried, and she is using her dad's insurance money to pay her way.

Darby wants to be able to support herself without a man. She learns of girls jumping to their death from the fourteenth floor. Does she really want to be here? She is told she is a Barbizon girl now.

Darby meets Stella Conover and he gals, with the Eileen Ford modeling agency. Stella is from Granite Falls, NC, a southern belle. She tries to play down her accent, since it makes her seem unsophisticated.

She soon meets Esme, a young maid who works at the hotel. As the two become friends, she draws her into a world (underbelly of drugs), the nightlife, and convinces her to work at a jazz night club.

Could Esme be a bad girl? Secrets. Esme refused to define herself as a hotel maid. Maybe Darby didn’t need to define herself as a boring secretary.

Flash forward to modern day-2016, Rose Lewin, a journalist, is living at the Barbizon, which now houses condos, and working on a story about the hotel’s earlier, more glamorous jazz age days. Her personal life is going down the tubes, and her lover goes back to his wife, and she is kicked out of her condo.

Back in the day, it was the place to stay if you were a single girl in New York City. Some women were even grandfathered in after it went condo. Is there a story here? What secrets does the hotel hold?

Delving into the life of Miss McLaughlin, Rose begins to uncover a conspiracy and mystery. A death of a Barbizon maid, Esme. Rose finds she can get lost in the research for the Barbizon story, a welcome distraction from her own troubles. She needed this story. A killer story.

A bygone era at the Barbizon in New York City--from secrets, shocking twists, a drug scandal, heroine rings, romance, identity switches, an accident, money, tragedy to crossing lines--mixed with glamour, glitz, and dreams. What happened on the terrace in 1952?

A group of elderly ladies who live in rent-controlled apartments, who've been there for years. One goes back as far as 1952. A tragic history. The woman in 4B was an enigma, living alone with a tiny dog in the same apartment year after year. How did she fill her time? Did she have a family or someone she could rely on?

From Darby and Rose, the author weaves a twisty story from the classic age reminiscent of exciting times. (always love the Palm Beach references). The parents took care of the bills until they were handed off to Prince Charming. Lots of competition.

Intriguing, mesmerizing, alluring, crossing over to the darker side, with desires, and scandal -as women try to make their place in an ever changing world.

Well-researched, rich in history and character, cleverly crafted, an engaging debut set in the lush world of New York’s glamour.

From privilege, tragedy, wealth, and the lure of the city. From the beautiful fashion, historic architecture, and style- one of the most exciting times in history. In the hotel’s heyday, from the 40's through the late 60's, it housed a roster of remarkable women in their not-yet-discovered years.

From the women's internal struggles; for the right career, the right guy, risks, and the perfect life— a constant companion to many of the girls who lived within the chic Barbizon’s cloistered walls.

Looking forward to more from this author. Love the stylish cover! I also listened to the audiobook, narrated by Tavia Gilbert, for an engaging performance.

Profile Image for N.L. Brisson.
Author 15 books16 followers
February 13, 2017
If you are of a certain age then you were just in your teens when Sylvia Plath committed suicide and you probably read The Bell Jar which young people, especially young women, still read today. Sylvia Plath was very interesting to English major types because she was young and she was already famous. She won a sort of internship at Mademoiselle Magazine and went off to live in New York City. Quite an accomplishment for someone just starting out in life and we will never know if, or how much, her early success contributed to her clinical depression. We know she was gone too quickly and we wondered what else she might have done if she had survived.

For a while the young Sylvia Plath lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women which may have gained its fame from her short tenure there. I remember being fascinated to learn that there was a NYC residence that housed only women, with strict rules about guests of the male persuasion, much like the dorms I lived in at college where we were separated by gender and girls had serious rules, governing both curfews and male guests. It seemed so elegant and atavistic at the same time for a city as metropolitan as New York to have this type of restricted boarding house among its many idiosyncratic offerings.

In her book The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis, takes her readers into The Barbizon about 50 years after the days of Sylvia Plath, and at the same time, in flashbacks takes us back to the Barbizon in the 50’s. Her main character is a journalist of sorts for an online publication who happens to live at the Barbizon, now in transition with some units redone and sold as condos and some still rented to original tenants. After her married boyfriend, the owner of their shared condo, throws her out to go back to his wife she continues to try to interview some of these permanent residents who were there in the old days. One resident is especially interesting. She walks her dog everyday but no one has seen her face in many years. She wears a veil and there is a story that she has a terrible scar on her face and that someone fell from the lounge on the roof of the hotel to her death and that the mystery woman was with her when she fell.

Upon hearing this story our journalist friend is even more determined to hear the stories that the older residents have to tell. It’s almost like solving a mystery but one that was obviously resolved long ago as the veiled lady is not in prison. When circumstances conspire to allow Rose Lewin to install herself (without permission) in the mystery woman’s apartment the story begins to take shape. (There are repercussions.)

Although I did not get really attached to any of the characters in The Dollhouse, perhaps that was not the point of the novel. The author, through flashbacks does recreate the experience of living in the Barbizon which was very similar to living in a very classy dormitory. She also takes us into the jazz club scene and some of the diversity that is always encountered in this iconic city. And there is a bit of romance in the mix. However the content is a bit light and I was not successfully drawn into feeling emotionally involved in either the characters or the plot. (There was a spice book mentioned that I would love to see and smell.) This is a good read, but not a great read.
Profile Image for Deanna.
928 reviews52 followers
July 12, 2017
DNF at 60%.
This book had some promise.

Landmark NYC building brought to life in present day and back in its day. Except it wasn't brought to life, as I never felt I was in any particular building, nor even especially in NYC of any period.

Potentially interesting storylines in both periods (though I'm not a fan for multiple time periods in one book, I get that most of my opposition is idiosyncratic and whiny and often I end up liking the book and sometimes even both storylines). But both stories play out in a pulpy fashion. The contemporary story had its moments, but failed to hold me.

Finally I rescued myself with a late eject button. I did want to like this one. This is the second attempt at reading this.
Profile Image for Kelley.
637 reviews116 followers
June 22, 2018
Novel read for Book Discussion Group

This was a fascinating story of a couple of the girls who lived at the Barbizon Hotel during the 50's. Fiona Davis tells the story of Darby a girl from Defiance, Ohio whose mother sends her to New York City to attend secretarial school. Darby finds a friend in a maid, Esme. As Esme draws Darby into the jazz world of 1950's New York, Darby begins to find herself there. The other half of the novel is the story of Rose, a journalist who happens to live just above Darby at the Barbizon. Rose becomes obsessed with finding out about the ladies of the 4th floor; ladies who never left the Barbizon after it became apartments.

I loved the juxtaposition of Rose and Darby's stories! I didn't know about the Barbizon or the jazz scene in New York in the 50's.
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