Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
The Dollhouse. . . . That’s what we boys like to call it. . . . The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you.”
Fiona Davis’s stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City’s glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in the 1950s, 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.
I usually don’t gravitate towards books labeled as historical fiction, but the minute I read the blurb for this book and laid my eyes on that gorgeous cover I knew I had to give this one a chance. I am so glad that I did, this is such an interesting and dazzling debut.
The story is told from two perspectives; Darby, a young girl from Defiance, Ohio who has just arrived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in 1952. She has led a very sheltered and simple life thus far and is initially overwhelmed when she is thrust into this new and glamorous world. Rose is a modern day journalist and is everything one would imagine a journalist to be; smart, ambitious, independent and gutsy. I love when books tell two parallel stories that merge at the end. It’s so fascinating and fun to try and figure out how things will tie together.
Both of these woman were easy to connect with in their own ways. Darby is so naive and innocent, I felt immediately protective of her. She is intimidated by the other women living at the Barbizon and lacks the confidence to stand up for herself. As she struggles to find her place in NYC, a maid at the hotel befriends her. Esme is one of the few people to be kind to Darby and they begin spending time together frequently. Esme has a bit of a wild side that both intrigues Darby and scares her. She introduces her to the dark and seedy world of jazz clubs, where there are things happening that Darby could never even have imagined.
Rose has just been through a huge career setback and is working underneath her pay grade for an outlet that is too contemporary and fluffy for her taste. Her romantic life is a mess and she’s trying to find her new place in NYC. When she begins investigating a piece on the Barbizon, she starts to uncover secrets in Darby’s past. What really happened on the night of the rooftop altercation? Why does Darby always wear a veil to hide her face?
I had so much fun reading this book! I adored Darby’s sections and all the descriptions of life in NYC in the 50’s. Everything was so simple, yet so glamorous. I found myself just as dazzled as Darby was reading about the city and the men and women living there. The mystery was intriguing as well, it provided an intense backdrop for a gorgeous story. I am blown away that this is Davis’ debut, she is an excellent storyteller and I look forward to reading more from her.
Overall rating: 4/5
Thanks to Dutton for my copy in exchange for an honest review.