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The Doll Factory

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In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

“A page-turning psychological thriller” (Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist) that will haunt you long after you finish it, The Doll Factory is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and The Historian.

362 pages, Hardcover

First published May 2, 2019

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About the author

Elizabeth Macneal

8 books794 followers
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth's debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,596 reviews
Profile Image for Maureen .
1,378 reviews7,089 followers
September 26, 2019
Richly evocative of Victorian London, ‘The Doll Factory’ revolves around Iris, who together with her sister Rose, works for the cruel, laudanum addicted Mrs Salter. Iris dreams of being an artist, expressing herself on canvas, giving vent to her talents, rather than spending long hours of monotony painting dolls faces. When she meets pre- Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, and he asks her to model for him, she agrees, on condition that he teaches her to paint professionally.

This is London 1850, and a crowd of people are watching the construction of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, and it’s here that Iris has another meeting (albeit very fleeting) - his name is Silas, (a taxidermist by trade) - for Iris this is a meeting that’s immediately forgotten - but for Silas this is the beginning of an obsession that knows no limits - Iris will be his, of that he is certain, and in his own little world, he believes that she feels the same way too.

This is a richly dark and gothic book, with Silas’s creepy obsession becoming ever more frightening as the story evolves and picks up pace. There were certain parts of the book that involved animal cruelty, which for me personally, is really difficult, and I therefore had to skim through these particular parts, but that said, it was a well written debut novel featuring art, romance, obsession and possession, and was ultimately a dark but gripping read.

* Thank you to Netgalley and Pan Macmillan for my ARC. I have given an honest unbiased review in exchange *
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,598 reviews24.7k followers
March 15, 2019
This is an unforgettable piece of chilling and gothic historical fiction, the debut from Elizabeth Macneal, set in the Victorian era. She writes an atmospheric and beautifully constructed story of art, ambition, a deranged obsession, love and horror, amidst the poverty, class divisions and entrenched inequalities, squalor, culture, scientific developments, and the prevalent social norms and attitudes of the time, such as the way women were treated. Iris and her sister, Rose live humdrum lives painting dolls for the laudanum addicted Mrs Salter. Life has not been easy for the sisters, Iris has ambitions to be an artist, but is not supported by her family in this. It is 1850, the year of the Great Exhibition, and Iris has what is for her an inconsequential encounter with the odd and strange Silas, a troubled taxidermist with his shop of curiosities, visited by the medical profession and artists. For the lonely Silas, it is to mark the start of an all encompassing obsession that is to become increasingly delusional as in his mind, Iris feels as he does.

Iris encounters the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, who wants Iris to model for him, and which provides Iris with the opportunity she has been seeking to escape her suffocating life and social class and, realise her dreams. She asks Louis to provide her with art lessons, and he acquiesces, with Iris painting in secret. In a increasingly dark and disturbing narrative, Iris begins to have increasing feelings for Louis, but the disturbed Silas has other plans. The author skilfully captures this historical period with her rich and evocative descriptions, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the science, and in her diverse cast of characters. Her characterisation of Silas is stellar, he feels like a real and authentic character in all his madness, and I adored the young bright street child, Albie, with his understandable desire for a set of teeth. I found this a gripping story, particularly in the last part where it becomes more thriller than just pure historical fiction. It is an unsettling and disturbing immersive read, with its elements of horror, ideal for those who love historical fiction set in Victorian times. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for an ARC.
Profile Image for Beata.
729 reviews1,112 followers
August 29, 2019
This novel is a winner for me!
The 1850 London, where pre-Raphaelites shook the artistic world, where a young woman is tired of painting dolls and wants to express herself in real art, London where a little boy collects money by bringing carcases of dead animals to a most peculiar taxidermist in order to buy false teeth for himself and who also looks after his sister, and London that is preparing for the Great Exhibition, is the place that I found fascinating while reading, and at the same time somehow appalling. The Author did a grand job incorporating many peculiarities of the Victorian England into the plot, for instance, take the macabre idea of taking pictures of the departed children and painting so-called mourning dolls to put on their graves or collecting everything that can be collected, in
The characters in this novel are portrayed wonderfully, their actions and desires expressed in such a way that I was not left indifferent, and I was together with them in the doll shop, in the artist studio or in the basement full of curiosities, some of which truly morbid. I felt for Albie, a small boy who is saving up to buy false teeth for himself as he had just one fang left(!), and looking after his elder sister as well as he can. Iris Whittle is a wonderful heroine, desperate to achieve her goals despite ostracism. And Silas ….. I believe he is one of the most frightening and abhorrent characters I have come across in gothic novels.
And the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood …… I loved the idea of Iris meeting Louis Frost, one of the members, and I feel they are an ideal match, in love and in art.
I am not going to miss another offering by Ms Macneal.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,000 reviews35.9k followers
August 18, 2019

This Victorian era....
fusion drama gets creepier and creepier....with a climactic ending!!!

A reader who chooses this novel is getting the deli deluxe combo sandwich with added secret ingredients whether you want them or not.....
along with:
....gothic noir...
....historical fiction...(a tribute to art, artists and London during the Victorian era, 1850-1851...and an education/understanding of pre-Raphael)...
....creations made in a doll shop...
....a Great exhibition in Hyde Park...
....romance - jealousy- love - death - ambition - dazzling crowds of people - poverty/class - brotherhood - pioneer-female artist - sensuality- mystery - horror - art appreciation -tragedy- animal cruelty...
....a dark & haunting atmospheric setting...
....a psychological crime thriller with icon oddity-characters:
....a sociopath sinister taxidermist: ( sells stuffed mice and birds to artists... with a frightening love obsession)...
....a drug addicted mad woman...
....twin sisters: each with different compelling characteristics and family backgrounds.... one with a slight birth defect the other later disfigured.
....an up-and-coming painter...
....an urchin orphan boy who finds dead things... to bring to the taxidermist.

I have mixed thoughts about this DELUXE COMBO novel because although the story pulled me along it’s gripping and thought-provoking path...with very unique intriguing characters....
it’s not a book I would go out of my way to recommend....
because of how creepy - disturbing and nightmarish
some parts are.

I learned some history and came away with an appreciation for an era I knew little about.

I appreciate the creativity..
Respect the storytelling...
It’s very well written...
Much is enjoyable... but definitely not for squeamish
Profile Image for Liz.
2,016 reviews2,515 followers
July 23, 2019
The Doll Factory imagines an 1850 London that could easily have been written by Dickens. We see Albie, the street urchin with but a single tooth, who collects dead animals for Silas, a taxidermist and a collector who dreams of having his own museum of oddities. Twin sisters, Iris and Rose, paint and cloth china dolls for Mrs. Salter, their laudanum addicted mistress. When Iris meets Louis Frost, a pre-Raphaelite painter, she strikes a bargain with him to model in exchange for painting lessons. The book does a good job of conveying the limitations of being a woman in Victorian England. Iris wants to be an artist, but it seems everyone, even Louis, sees her as an object.

MacNeal has an eye for detail. I’m always entranced by writers that can translate the creation of art to the written work and MacNeal does it perfectly.

As the book goes on, it gets darker and scarier and the pace picks up. Silas’ obsession with Iris consumes him. He’s an odd one from the beginning, but as the book progresses, he becomes positively mad. This one is not for the faint of heart.

My thanks to netgalley and Atria Books for an advance copy of this book
Profile Image for Debra .
2,279 reviews35k followers
September 15, 2019

All words which can be used to describe The Doll Factory, a Gothic Victorian tale set in London in 1850. When Iris, an aspiring artist meets Louis, pre-Raphaelite artist she agrees to model for him in exchange for painting lessons. She spends her days painting doll faces and years for more. Silas has also met Iris and he has plans of his own - dark plans which lead to obsession.

This is a dark tale that often had me thinking how lucky I am to live in this day and age.

For me this was a little slow to start but soon things began to pick up as I learned the characters, their nuances, hopes, dreams, and obsessions. Although this book never completely knocked me off my feet (or reading chair) I enjoyed the Gothic feel and the downward spiral of obsession. Then there is the ending..hmmm...was I the only one thinking "what happens next?" quickly followed by "what just happened?" I found the ending to be nothing short of abrupt. The ending had me wanting more but also helped me to feel what most of the characters in this book were feeling, most wanted more - more teaching, more love, a better life, a better way to survive, to be a family, to have what one covets most. The setting was fabulous and the characters intense, with a dark, gloomy atmospheric vibe throughout.

Thank you to Atria books and NetGalley who provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All the thoughts and opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Icey.
150 reviews108 followers
November 6, 2021
When an irrational mind is combined with a wild obsession, it will become the most eerie horrors.
The whole story feels like a short, chilling whisper. The writing style and the fragmented storylines are most dreamy like, it was a cold and obscure fascination.
Though I should confess that I prefer the first half of the story better, overall it’s still a really good gothic story.

Key words: gothic | Victorian England | artist | eccentric characters
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,121 reviews30.2k followers
August 14, 2019
Happy pub day to this creepy blend of hist fic and mystery! 🦋 🦋 🦋 🦋

The Doll Factory is set in 1850s London. The Great Exhibition is going up on Hyde Park. It’s an art exhibition and among the crowd watching the event are Iris and Silas, who meet by chance. Iris is an aspiring artist and Silas is collector of curiosities and a taxidermist (creepy!). Iris does not think much of the meeting, but to Silas, it’s a point of importance.

Iris is asked to model for Louis Frost, and she agrees if he will teach her how to paint. This is only the beginning for Iris as she sees doors opening for her and her passion for art.

However, Silas is only thinking of Iris, and his thoughts are obsessive, dark, and sinister.

I LOVED the Victorian London setting. Macneal brings it vividly to life. The tone is dark. The Gothic elements are strong and haunting. Silas oozes creepiness. Admittedly, there were some parts that were too dark for me, and I had to skim over those.

There is something for everyone in The Doll Factory. It’s frightening and well-paced. I loved the art references and the writing flows smoothly. The obsession and darkness of it all is drawn so well. I was gripped and found the entire read compelling.

Overall, The Doll Factory is a chilling piece of equal parts historical fiction and mystery. It’s a page-turner, and I adored it, though it completely creeped me out!

I received a complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.

TW: due to the taxidermy, please be aware there were some animal scenes I had to skip over.

Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com
Profile Image for *TUDOR^QUEEN* .
434 reviews443 followers
September 15, 2019
3.5 Stars

I was lured into reading this book because of its locale and time period (Victorian London), the Dickensian / gothic atmosphere, and the promise of all things weird. This book delivered on all fronts.

The main character is Iris, who with her twin sister Rose works in a porcelain doll shop in London. The apprenticeship was set up by their parents. The establishment is sandwiched in between other storefronts, one of which is a bakery, resulting in sugary scents wafting into their shop. Iris has artistic talent, and is responsible for painting the faces on the dolls. Rose sews the garments to clothe the dolls. However, a street urchin named Albie has sewing work outsourced to him, which he brings to the shop regularly for payment. Iris and Rose were both beautiful, tall and with long, bountiful auburn hair. However, Iris has a slight deformity of her collarbone which was broken during birth and never healed correctly. Rose's fate was much more cruel. Once the fairer of the two sisters, after contracting smallpox her skin has a purplish cast and is ruined with crater scars. She clings to Iris more than ever, her chance for marriage non-existent.

Albie is my favorite character in the book. His tale is heartbreaking, yet he never gives up. He's a hard worker, resourceful, good-hearted, and has a great survival instinct. He also is a loyal brother to his sister, who works as a prostitute in a seedy basement brothel, her being the cheapest option in the house. He is forever chided for the one front tooth left in his mouth and called "Fang". He dreams of buying a set of false teeth, saving whatever he can scavenge towards that goal. In addition to sewing little skirts for the porcelain doll shop, he also bags dead animals for a very strange man named Silas Reed. Silas has a taxidermy shop with items such as birds frozen in flight, dressed up mice, butterflies under glass, and skeletal remains. Artists sometimes procure items (such as a stuffed dove or a dog) to use in their paintings. There are sometimes strange and unpleasant odors around his shop due to the rotting remains of the animals he works on, depending how careful he has been maintaining things. For on occasion Silas has been distracted... obsessed and angered with women, and has suffered abuse as a child. He's a lifelong victim of rejection, beginning with his mother. Now he has focused his sights on Iris. Initially riveted by the subtle disfigurement of her collarbone, he is now swept away by her overall beauty.

Iris's beauty has also been noticed by a painter named Louis who wants her to be his model. Iris is dazzled by Louis's attractive home which houses his art studio, but is conflicted by the thought of leaving her sister alone at the doll shop. Also, her parents will disown her entirely if she adopts the scandalous job position of painter's model. Yet, she yearns to leave the depressing environs of the doll shop and also wishes to explore her own burgeoning talent as a painter.

This is London during the time of Queen Victoria, and the Great Exhibition is taking place in Hyde Park. Both Louis (and his fellow artist group) and Silas have pieces on display for this exhibition, and hopes are high for a positive reception. There are dark themes in this story such as prostitution, poverty, animal abuse, murder, and mental illness. This book reminded me a bit of a movie from 1965 called "The Collector". There is the terror of evil pursuit, entrapment, and a twisted mind. Quite frankly, if I wasn't reading/reviewing this for the publisher, I possibly would have put this aside for something else. However, the story was written well enough to keep me hanging on.

Thank you to the publisher Atria Books who provided an advance reader copy via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Bren fall in love with the sea..
1,574 reviews271 followers
March 30, 2020
"‘I would say observing. It’s an important skill for an artist".

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

I am editing this because I want to be clear. This is a good book but NOT FOR ME. Different books are for different people.

Were it not for the Taxidermist and killing of an animal, graphic scenes of stuffing animals ETC I would have most likely given this a higher rating. And I did read most of it although I cannot even say how much I skimmed or ignored entirely because of this issue. If these things DO NOT bother you, you may indeed like this book. I skimmed to finish. Not the writer's fault. She writes beautifully. But I cannot read a book with intense animal cruelty that starts literally on page one. I do understand the main character is a taxidermist but there is such focus on what he does to the animals. He also thinks nothing of murdering an animal to work on it in his store. It was all a bit much.

I love Historical Fiction and I love Gothic novels which is what I understood this book to be and in a sense it is but did not know how brutal it was and most importantly the unrelenting scenes of dead animals were nauseating and really interfered with any enjoyment of this book. As I said, it is well written, beautifully written actually, but is not at all for people who loath graphic scenes of Taxidermy, animals being murdered, and animal brutality as it is pretty much through the whole book. I am not one who stops reading all that easily and I have read books with one or two scenes of animal brutality and I usually dock a star but this is unrelenting, throughout the book and I wish I had looked more closely on what it was about. My mistake.

I would also describe this as more of a Horror/Gothic then Traditional Historical Fiction.It is more geared toward Horror in my opinion then even Gothic. This is a pretty twisted story that made me think of the show "American Horror story".

She writes beautifully about the time period and the book is genuinely frightening at some points. I understand why it has such positive reviews as if one likes Historical Gothic fiction and do not have issues such as I described that would like this most likely.

In short..I made a mistake with this one. Not for me at all.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
695 reviews1,072 followers
September 13, 2020
Expectations met!

Iris and her twin sister Rose work in a shop that makes dolls. They paint their faces an make their clothes - sending nearly all their wages back to their parents.

Iris secretly longs for more, she fondly remembers the times her and Rose would plan their own shop where they could sell their own wares and be independent.

When the opportunity arises for Iris to be a model for an up and coming artist she can’t refuse. And in exchange Louis will give her painting lessons and money so she can eventually pursue her dream.

What no one banks on though is local taxidermist and all round creeper Silas becoming entranced with Iris and then eventually obsessed.

This was a great story to watch unfold with uncertainty and dread. The setting of 1850s London is so well done you feel like you are right there in the squalor and dirt.

A debut that I thoroughly enjoyed. 4 stars ⭐️
Profile Image for Norma.
551 reviews12.2k followers
September 27, 2019
Nopety nope......this book just wasn’t for me. It was extremely slow going and I was losing patience with it more than anything else. I was also turned off and a little disgusted by a few scenes and when that happens while reading there usually isn’t anything that will save the book for me whether it’s an amazing read or not.

I couldn’t resist that gorgeous cover and title of this book though and thought I would absolutely love it. I’m so disappointed that I didn’t.

I received an ARC through NetGalley.
September 27, 2019
Not feeling the love for this one and there is no grooving to the beat of this one for me! This was one Norma and I thought we would love but it was not the dark and twisted that I like to groove to. So I am moving on to the next one and keeping this review short.
Profile Image for Emma.
2,431 reviews827 followers
April 26, 2020
This was a great book. The descriptions and historical details were realistic and some were new to me. I’ve read quite a lot of Victorian historical fiction, so new ways of thinking about this era are always welcome: a boy saving for a full set of dentures; the fascination with natural history and taxidermy as the scientific discoveries of anatomy multiplied .The symbol of the Great Exhibition as the visible part of an iceberg, while the gritty filth and ordinariness of Victorian Street life lies below the surface, was an image that came to me while reading. The revelations as the book goes on of the depths of Silas’ madness was very well done. Those mice!
Many thanks to Netgalley for an arc of this book.
Profile Image for Zoe.
1,817 reviews170 followers
August 7, 2019
Gothic, evocative, and eerie!

The Doll Factory is a riveting, gritty tale set in London in the mid-1800s at a time when the city was bustling, scavenging was prevalent, respectability meant everything, The Great Exhibition was a structural marvel, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was redefining visual art.

There are three main memorable characters in this novel; Iris Whittle, a young red-headed girl who dreams of becoming an artist and unconsciously catches the eye of many; Silas Reed, a strange fellow with a morbid fascination with taxidermy and a macabre, obsessive nature; and Albie, a young guttersnipe who spends his days traipsing the streets for a shilling and dreaming of a mouth full of pearly whites.

The prose is ominous and rich. The supporting characters are multilayered, flawed, and believable. And the plot is an insightful, compelling tale of familial responsibilities, strength, duty, coming-of-age, art, friendship, passion, desire, obsession, loss, love, survival, and the roles of women in Victorian England.

Overall, The Doll Factory is an intense, creative, menacing read by Macneal that does a beautiful job of interweaving historical facts and compelling fiction into a sinister, suspenseful mystery that is deliciously atmospheric and highly entertaining.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,217 reviews2,049 followers
April 21, 2020
This is a beautifully written, debut novel set in Victorian London against a backdrop of the Great Exhibition.

I love reading historical fiction, partly because of the things I learn and this one taught me lots about the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood which was fascinating. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about taxidermy at least when it is performed by a madman. When it became too gross I am afraid I resorted to skimming.

The character of Silas was very skilfully drawn. the book becomes a thriller, and the tension does not let up until the very last sentence.

I appreciated this book for its quality writing but did not enjoy reading it. Just a bit too gross for me.
Profile Image for Nadia.
269 reviews175 followers
January 11, 2019
3.5 stars

Set in Victorian London in 1850, Elizabeth MacNeal's debut novel, the Doll Factory, depicts a story of Iris, who despite her parents disapproval decides to follow her dream of becoming an artist. She meets Luis who is a painter from Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and he is completely smitten by her. Luis wants to paint Iris and also agrees to give her painting lessons. However, Luis is not the only one who has their eyes on Iris. Iris and Silas are briefly introduced at an exhibition. While Iris forgets Silas in an instant, for Silas this moment represents a lifechanging encounter. Socially awkward Silas dreams about Iris day and night. Completely delusional about her feelings, he believes she feels the same.

I found the pace of the novel a bit slow to start with. Despite the book being atmosperic and the writing reminiscent of the Victorian era, it took me some time to get into it. It wasn't until about 80%, that my heartbeat finally increased. The story takes a sudden turn and I felt like I was reading a thriller. From this point I could not put the book down. To then come to an abrupt end, leaving me wishing for more, was frustrating and unfortunate.

Many thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 1 book2,798 followers
September 24, 2021
I really loved this. A fantastic, pacy, thought-provoking read with really strong characters. Would highly recommend!
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,032 reviews48.4k followers
September 3, 2019
I’ve missed subway stops to finish a book, but this is the first time I almost missed a plane. The final chapters of Elizabeth Macneal’s delightfully creepy novel kept me screwed to my office chair as my wife sent irritated texts from the airport.

What more could one want from a Victorian thriller?

But Macneal delivers even more. “The Doll Factory,” which is already a hit in England, offers an eerily lifelike re-creation of 1850s London laced with a smart feminist critique of Western aesthetics. It’s a perfect blend of froth and substance, a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson.

The whole story takes place at a time of exhilarating discovery and invention. All of London — from royals to street urchins — is awed by the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, “a turning kaleidoscope” where the wonders of the world have been assembled. Advances in industrial technology mirror equally revolutionary changes in social attitudes.

One of the many people enthralled by the Great Exhibition is an ambitious young woman named Iris. But the future that stretches out before her is mired in dismal servitude. Iris is stuck painting little faces in a dank doll shop owned by a mad old woman. Only her secret nude painting late at night offers her any. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
July 5, 2019

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I'm a sucker for stories about murderous obsession, especially if it's channeled through art. John Fowles's THE COLLECTOR was about a butterfly collector who decided to broaden his repertoire to include a woman, and Patrick Süskind's PERFUME is about a perfume creator who wants to perfect the scent of a young girl. THE DOLL FACTORY, with its compellingly creepy summary, seemed like it would be yet another tale in that vein.

Iris works in a doll factory under the authoritarian watch of a drug-addled woman who's going crazy on a cocktail of Victorian-era medications including laudanum and arsenic. Iris is a beautiful young woman with a birth defect that causes her to have a twisted collarbone and an outthrust left shoulder, who wants to be a painter. Working with her is her bitter twin sister, Rose, who used to be the favorite of the family until she was disfigured by pox and her prospects were ruined.

One day, Iris catches the attention of a creepy taxidermist named Silas, who provides stuffed animals to artists as models. Silas gives Iris's name to an artist, hoping to curry favor, although when she becomes first his model, and then, later, his student and lover, his jealousy and mad obsession increases, and he begins to conceive of ways to make Iris his and his alone - at any cost. As Iris's talent increases along for her ardor for Louis, time begins to run out, and Silas slowly drums up the courage and supplies to make his move.

THE DOLL FACTORY definitely fits neatly into the "obsessive artist" genre, paying obvious homage to THE COLLECTOR. As the years go by, I find that many people turn their attention to past classics for inspiration and what was old once again becomes new. Three years ago, I read another COLLECTOR-inspired thriller, which was Dot Hutchinson's BUTTERFLY GARDEN, only that book had the distinction of being sensational and salacious in a way that was hard to put down.

THE DOLL FACTORY, on the other hand, is slow-moving and long. Iris is a character who is easy to like, but everyone in her life - from her sister, to her parents, to Silas, and even to Louis, initially - seems to want to take advantage of her, which is typical for a woman of no means living in Victorian England; she is not a living breathing woman with agency, but chattel to be possessed. Also true to Victorian England is the setting of squalor and the obsession with death, particularly death in art. The Victorians were mad for death, preserving and displaying animals in curio cabinets and under glass domes, wearing the hair and portraits of loved ones in jewellery, and basically acting morbid enough to give even the most hardcore of goths a run for their money. I thought that was well-portrayed here.

I liked this book, but the pacing made it hard to get through and it felt longer than it needed to be. I felt like the passages about Albie and his sister, for example, were unnecessary, and it made them seem much more necessary to the storyline than they actually needed to be by the end. There were a lot of unnecessary scenes that could have been sliced out to tighten the narrative flow. I don't regret reading it and I found the ending satisfying, but it was a long and arduous path getting there.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!  

3 stars
Profile Image for Selena.
488 reviews309 followers
September 22, 2019
I received a free e-copy of The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal from NetGalley for my honest review.

This book of historical fiction that is super creepy! This story takes place in 1850's in London. Twin sisters, Iris and Rose, work for Mrs. Salter at the Doll Emporium. The girls paint doll faces and clothe them as well. Iris aspires to be a real artist. Rose doesn't ever want to go anywhere or do anything because of the scars she has on her face from having smallpox.

Iris, who is beautiful, soon becomes the obsession of Silas, a crazy taxidermist who things that he can have her. His obsession of her takes a dark, terrible and twisted path.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,569 followers
June 21, 2019
(Nearly 4.5) Victorian pastiches are among my very favorite things to read, but (not least because I have an MA in Victorian Literature) I’m awfully picky about them. This one’s a winner, perfect for fans of Michel Faber, John Fowles, and Sarahs Moss, Perry and Waters. It’s set over a year and a half in the early 1850s and focuses on the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but it also rootles around in the everyday world of poorer Londoners: the sort who scrounge a living by making taxidermied curiosities, running errands or writing letters for the functionally illiterate. Iris Whittle dreams of escaping Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, where she and her smallpox-scarred twin sister, Rose, spend their days tediously painting faces, and becoming a real painter, and when (fictional) PRB artist Louis Frost takes her on as an artists’ model and offers to give her painting lessons too, it looks like she’s home-free. But she has a stalker, a lonely lowlife who’s constructed a whole fantasy universe around Iris returning his love, and the book gets a lot darker than I expected as this plot thread plays out.

At first I thought the title was inappropriate given how soon Iris makes her escape from Mrs Salter’s, but the deeper I got into the story the more I realized it’s a metaphor for the demands society places on women – and a passage like this tells you it’s not merely a comment on the Victorian period, but just as relevant today: “she has been careful not to encourage men, but not to slight them either, always a little fearful of them. She is seen as an object to be gazed at or touched at leisure … something for which she should be grateful. She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make the men feel snubbed.”

It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism that remind you it really wasn’t such a nice time to live in, especially the fate of various animals and the character Albie, who’s most like Jo the street-sweeper from Bleak House: the urchin with the heart of gold. He’s a toothless orphan who just wants to protect his prostitute sister and have enough money left over for some false teeth. If some characters seem to fit neatly into stereotypes (the fallen woman, the rake, etc.), be assured that Macneal is interested in nuances. This is a terrific debut novel full of panache and promise, and one of my top 2019 releases so far.
Profile Image for Pauline.
745 reviews
November 17, 2018
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is the story of Iris who works in the Doll Factory and dreams of being an artist. She becomes a model for the artist Louis Frost and she embraces the world of art.
Iris meets Silas who becomes obsessed with her and the story becomes very dark and sometimes scary.
I would like to thank NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for my e-copy in exchange for an honest review.

September 4, 2022
2,9 stars
Não consegui entregar-me a esta história, houve qualquer coisa que simplesmente não funcionou.
Tinha todos os "ingredientes" para me cativar, mas...
A escrita é um pouco entediante, o desenvolvimento é demasiado lento.
Algumas situações absurdas.
As personagens não me conseguiram cativar, com excepção de Albie, que para mim, foi a alma da história.
O vombate também teve a sua participação engraçada.
Iris e Rose, freak show?!?
Não... Simplesmente, não.
A capa, no entanto, é lindíssima.
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,780 reviews1,625 followers
May 2, 2019
Exquisite. Simply exquisite historical fiction. Winner of the Caledonia Novel Award 2018 and touted as Picador's most spectacular debut for 2019 it is difficult to explain just how sublime this was, and I am almost lost for words to describe the stunning fragility and intrigue this story brings.

Set in 1850s Victorian London, the period detail is perfect invoking the sight, scents and sounds of this great city; it's clear Ms Macneal has researched the era extensively to bring a rounded authenticity. I was particularly impressed and intrigued by learning more about the sisters who were part of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and much like other women of their time were overlooked.

This feels as far from a debut as you could get, often debuts are where an author finds their feet, but it appears that this master wordsmith found hers long ago. An incredibly accomplished debut and one of those books other writers will strongly wish they had birthed.

The Doll Factory is a startling meditation on the all-consuming nature of obsession and love set against the backdrop of The Great Exhibition and wider London art scene. Also explored are themes of devotion, madness and, of course, art. The tagline: "freedom is a precious thing" and the bell jar featuring various important pieces that form the basis of the story illustrates the powerful nature of love but if treated carelessly that the fine line between love and hate can often be crossed and never returned back from.

The cast of characters deepen with every passing chapter, the tense undercurrent that runs throughout grips from the very beginning and the vivid imagery makes you feel a part of the story rather than an outsider looking in. There are some genuinely chilling, creepy incidents on the slow-building journey to the climax which creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Towards the last half of the book, the story pace rises and moves closer to a simply heart-pounding crescendo.

I'm finding it really problematic doing The Doll Factory justice with this review and I must say that I rarely have an issue with reviewing. However, I feel floored after finishing this, and despite the number of books I read this one will unmistakably hold a special place in my heart for the way it made me feel throughout.

If you enjoy the period detail of historical fiction, the drama and shocking surprises of a thriller and books such as The Miniaturist and The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock then this will likely charm you as it did me. This, in my opinion, in unmissable. I will patiently await her next dazzling work. Ms Macneal, you have an ardent fan. Many thanks to Picador for an ARC.
Profile Image for Monica.
524 reviews160 followers
December 27, 2019
As you can tell by the fact it took me 3 months to finish this book, it definitely was not a favorite. The beginning was extremely slow and I sat it down many times. I think some of that is on me... I don’t usually read historical pieces but wanted to try something a little different.

The story picked up by about 75% and I felt actively engaged. There was a strong plot twist that added excitement. Overall I would recommend to readers who don’t mind the slower pace.

*Thanks to NetGalley and publishers for the advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Joanne Harris.
Author 91 books5,660 followers
October 6, 2018
Overall, a nice piece of atmospheric Gothic work, set in the world of Pre-Raphaelite art and featuring, among other things: artists' models; estranged twins; an endearing urchin; domestic tragedy; a deranged collector, plus various pieces of Romantic art, bad Victorian taxidermy, stained silk and bodily fluids. Well-written, evocative, and with just enough research detail to make the story pop, without descending into interminable descriptions of paint pigments. Not entirely sure the ending quite merited the long build-up, but then I'm more than usually picky about pay-offs. Definitely worth a read.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,462 reviews560 followers
July 3, 2021
[2.5] A richly atmospheric novel set in Victorian London with fascinating characters. Promising - but I was disappointed in the direction the author chose. For me, the obsessive, "suspenseful" plot line fell flat and felt generic and superimposed.
Profile Image for Annette.
763 reviews335 followers
January 11, 2021
London, 1850. Iris with her sister Rose work for Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium. Iris paints porcelain dolls’ feet, hands and face. Rose adds the “finer, more skilled detail to the rough skirts…” But Iris dreams of painting real things.

At the Great Exhibition, a collector named Silas meets Iris. His fascination with her gets obsessive. The story gives glimpses into his past and gives a better understanding about his obsessive behavior.

Louis Frost, an inspiring painter, is part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. When he approaches Iris to be his model, she hesitates as “modeling is only half a step above prostitution.” When a lesson is offered at the end of each day of modeling, an agreement is reached.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is skillfully presented with their brushes in hands and ideas expressed. All shown, and not told, creating a vibrant circle of artists, valuing artistic freedom and truth, with art going back to clarity of depiction, elegant composition, and vibrant colors.

This story is also categorized as Gothic, which has some dark moments of obsession. But it doesn’t overwhelm the story, except the story ends with obsession, which left me wishing it ended with the artists, something more vibrant. The last short chapter tries to capture that, but rather feels abrupt. On the other hand, if you're a reader of Gothic stories, then it does capture well that darker side of the story.

All characters are interestingly developed and the story is told engrossingly from the very first pages with a very fast flow.
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