The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis alternates between the present day New York City and 1952 via the lives of the women who live at the Barbizon Hotel. In 1952 it was known as the Barbizon Hotel for Women, catering to young, single women who aspired to be secretaries or models. Darby comes from Ohio to enroll in the Katharine Gibbs College, which taught young ladies business skills and etiquette. Very soon, she becomes friends with Esme, a maid, singer and aspiring actress. When Esme encourages Darby to perform with her at a jazz club downtown, Darby’s world view changes radically; she discovers passion – creatively and romantically. These chapters are tinged with nostalgia and a sense of impending tragedy. Davis does a marvelous job of immersing the reader in a very different era, with different assumptions for women – and she does it with a subtle, realistic way.
The chapters set in contemporary New York feature Rose, a journalist for an online magazine, and a current condo dweller at the Barbizon. As her own life falls apart, she becomes fascinated by the earlier inhabitants – some of which still live at the Barbizon (in rent-controlled apartments). Rose wants to tell the forgotten story of these women, but needs the hook of a fatal accident more than 50 years ago, to get the interest of her editor. She doesn’t want to exploit Darby, who just wants to be left alone, but, in the end, that is what she does.
Rose herself undergoes a transformation – from a woman who had a successful career, and a rising politician for a boyfriend to someone who is in the process of losing her job, her home and her father. Ultimately, she comes through it all a wiser and more independent person.