‘The Dollhouse’ is as much about a place as about people

October 3, 2016 GMT

“The Dollhouse” (Dutton), by Fiona Davis

Former actress and journalist Fiona Davis’ debut novel, “The Dollhouse,” is as much about a place as it is about people.

Built in 1927, the 23-story Barbizon Hotel for Women on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, served as a home away from home for actresses, models and other women seeking a career in the big city for most of its history. Men weren’t allowed above the ground floor, curfews were enforced and a strict code of conduct for behavior and dress was required. Famous real-life residents included Joan Crawford, Sylvia Plath and Grace Kelly.


Davis moves back and forth between the early 1950s and present day as a journalist seeks to uncover past secrets from women who came of age at the hotel and continued to live there thanks to rent control laws after the building was converted to condominiums in 2005.

Rose Lewin, a modern-day woman stuck in a hopelessly old-fashioned love triangle, becomes obsessed with Darby, a secretarial student who moves from Ohio to the Barbizon in 1952. As she straddles the ethical line between journalist and snoop, Rose uncovers an unsolved murder mystery involving Darby and her friend, a Puerto Rican maid at the hotel.

Through Darby and the Barbizon, we’re treated to a colorful tour through an era, warts and all — jazz, heroin, racism and sexism, not to mention lies, betrayal and murder.

“The Dollhouse” is a thrilling peek through a window into another world — one that readers will savor for a long time.