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The Dollhouse

Cover of The Dollhouse

The Dollhouse

A Novel
Borrow Borrow
"Rich both in twists and period detail, this tale of big-city ambition is impossible to put down."People

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

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.
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  • From the book ***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
    Copyright © 2016 Fiona Davis

    Chapter One

    New York City, 2016

    She'd forgotten the onions.

    After all of the preparation, the lists, the running out of work early to finish shopping and buy everything she needed for their special dinner, Rose had forgotten a key risotto ingredient. She checked the pantry, but the basket was empty save for a few remnants of the papery outer layers.

    Griff had raved about her risotto soon after they'd started dating, and she remembered how proud she'd been listing off the more surprising ingredients.

    "The coconut milk is the secret to it," she'd confided.

    "Why coconut milk?" He sat back in the rickety chair she'd bought at the thrift store on Bleecker, his long arms and legs far too unwieldy for her small studio apartment.

    "I find it makes the texture especially creamy." She said it lightly, as she collected their plates, as if cooking was easy for her, just another thing she did well, rather than a panic-inducing race to the finish line. "I slowly add the chicken stock and coconut milk to the rice and spices until all the flavors have melded."

    "I like the way you say that. Melded. Say it again."

    She did so, the way she would on camera, her pitch slightly lower than her conversational voice, clear and sure.

    Then he'd swept her up and made love to her on her bed with its tasteful handmade quilt. She'd stifled the impulse to sweep it to the side, so as not to have to send it to the dry cleaners tomorrow, and had instead surrendered to the enormity of him, all muscles and sinew, an athlete's body even at forty-five.

    She missed the simplicity and the heat of their life back then, before the angry ex-wife and the surly children punctured their cocoon of happiness. Before she'd given up her apartment and they'd moved into the Barbizon condo on the Upper East Side.

    Of course, his ex-wife and children wouldn't share her perspective. To them she was the interloper, taking up Griff 's attention and love. She checked the clock on the oven. Almost six. If she was fast, she could run out to Gourmet Garage and pick up white onions before Griff got home from City Hall.

    Her cell phone rang. Maddy again. The fourth call this hour.

    "What, Maddy?" She tried to sound irritated, but laughed before Maddy could reply.

    "I know, I know. You don't have any time to talk to your best friend right now. You're far too busy doing the dutiful housewife thing, right?"

    "Yup. And you're off to the Soapies?"

    "Daytime Emmys, if you please. I wish you were coming, Ro. What shoes go with the Michael Kors? Nude or gold?" Maddy's career as an actress had taken off since they'd met in college. Maddy had landed a contract role out of school on a daytime soap opera, and this was her first nomination.

    Rose swallowed her guilt at not being by her friend's side. "The nude, definitely. Text me a pic, okay?"

    "Any idea what Griff 's big news is yet?"

    Rose smiled and leaned back on the kitchen counter. "Probably nothing so big, in the end," she lied. "Maybe he's been promoted again? Such an overachiever."

    "I don't think so. Do the math: It's been a year since his divorce was finalized, you've been living together for three months, and it's time to set a date."

    "He has been acting weird lately. But what if I'm getting way ahead of myself?"

    "Trust your gut."

    "My gut says something's up. Even though sometimes it still feels like it's early stages. I mean, we haven't even furnished the apartment yet."

    The apartment she both loved and...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 9, 2016
    Davis’s impeccably structured debut is equal parts mystery, tribute to midcentury New York City, and classic love story. It showcases the intersection of two women’s lives at the famed Barbizon Hotel, whose notable residents included Joan Didion, Grace Kelly, and Sylvia Plath. In the present day, journalist Rose is kicked out of her upscale condo at the former hotel for women after her lover reunites with his wife. While doing research for an article on the grisly 1953 death of Barbizon maid Esme, she stays in the apartment of reclusive octogenarian tenant Darby. Darby, who has been a Barbizon resident for over 50 years, knew Esme and was connected to her demise. Rose’s investigation quickly becomes her obsession and refuge when her father becomes ill, her career implodes, and her hopes for a relationship with her married lover fade. “I need to know... how to start again,” Rose says as she digs to the bottom of the mystery of Esme’s death. Darby and Rose, in alternating chapters, weave intricate threads into twists and turns that ultimately bring them together; the result is good old-fashioned suspense. Through the two characters, Davis juxtaposes the elegance and dark side of a bygone era—its jazz, glamorous models, career-minded women, and nascent heroin market—with the crass, digitally obsessed, and cutthroat media world of today. What crosses the divide is the chance for disappointment and loss to give way to purpose and love. Agent: Stefanie Lieberman, Janklow & Nesbit.

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The Dollhouse
A Novel
Fiona Davis
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