By Cynthia Ayala
Back in 1952, the Barbizon Hotel was a hotel for women, Darby McLaughlin went there to become a secretary, but more happened, more than she ever thought possible. Years later, the Barbizon has gone condo and now Rose Lewin is living there, listening to the ghosts of the past as she hunts for a story that was long dead.
The Dollhouse published on August 23, 2016, by Dutton, is the debut novel of Fiona Davis about what it means to be a woman in the 50’s and today.
A riveting debut novel, Davis goes back and forth between two distinct narratives to tell a story that is more than just what it means to be a woman and the expectations that come with it. Within the narrative Davis is exploring the situations these women are stuck in. For Darby, in the 1950’s she’s a woman who was sent off by her mother to go to secretary school training. She’s a shy girl but one of the great things about her narrative is how much she changes and grows through the life style she has acquainted herself with. Throughout her story, the reader gets to see her grow and experience it as well. She becomes more confident, she becomes a stronger person who loves herself and wants to be more. As for Rose, she went from powerful anchor woman to a blogger whose boyfriend has left her to get back together with his wife, forcing her to repack her life, the life she changed for him, leaving her homeless.
Both of these women are coming from different points of life, an in both, the worlds they live in are both different and similar as they are both breaking out of their shells to do more than what was expected of them. They are connected through the Barbizon Hotel, making for a great pseudo-frame narrative.
It’s beautiful how the novel progresses itself because as Rose is investigating the past of the Barbizon Hotel and the women there she is losing sight of her ethics as she learns more about Darby’s time at the hotel. She’s a fascinating character who goes through much, and the best part of that is Davis shows the reader through her actions, through her narrative and her dialogue. There is no summarization here because everything she went through is as important to the story as everything she’s going through now, and the amazing structure of the scenes captures that beautifully. It shows that the past is just as important as the present.
That’s what the story really hinges on, Davis’s ability to capture the past perfectly and tell a story about it within two distinct narratives. For Darby, the narrative holds together very strongly, and within the way she interacts with some of the other characters, her naiveté and self-doubt reflect much of what many women then and now are facing. It makes is relevant because it highlights the ugly truth that society takes note of but also neglects. It shows that for women, while things have changed, not much has, and that makes it realistic.
Davis doesn’t skate around the tough subjects, she addresses them head on and embraces them with her characterization, because these characters are growing and moving forward themselves, they are changing for themselves and giving the reader the strength they need to face the world head on.
At the end of the day, it’s beautiful story-telling because it goes back and forth between the past and the present without taking the reader out of the story as a whole. (★★★★☆ | A)