The Barbizon Hotel for Women is/was a real thing. The hotel was a residence for women only from its inception in the late 1920s until it began allowing men as guests in 1981. The Barbizon was a safe place for young women new to the big city to live. Located on the upper east side of Manhattan, it was the home for many women trying to make their place in the world – women such as Lauren Bacall, Sylvia Plath, Grace Kelly, Eudora Welty.
The Barbizon Hotel may as well be one of the characters in author Fiona Davis’ captivating debut novel The Dollhouse. The Barbizon is the star of the show.
The novel is a back-and-forth story of two women, both who live in the Barbizon. One of the women, Darby McLaughlin, comes from a small town in Ohio, and is sent to New York City in 1952 by her bossy and obnoxious mother, who pays for her to attend a secretarial college in NYC. The second story is contemporary. Rose Lewis is a journalist who lives with her boyfriend in what used to be the Barbizon, but is now condominiums. However, a few of the units are still inhabited by former residents of the old historic hotel.
Rose is dumped by her boyfriend, and through a series of somewhat admittedly unlikely events, she becomes acquainted with a couple of the women who still live in their original apartments. Originally interested in these women primarily to write a story for the magazine for which she works, Rose eventually gets caught up in these two women’s compelling and interrelated stories about life in the 1950s, love, jazz music, and murder.
It is all quite delicious.
I think part of me liked the story so much because I found the whole notion that there was a hotel for women in NYC so interesting, and when I did some research and learned about some of the real-life residents who lived there, I was hooked.
Sometimes novels with back-and-forth storylines can become confusing and jumbled, but I found Davis’ handling of the style to be smooth and flowed well. Despite the fact that I was horrified at some of the choices Rose made in her search for the story, I liked the characters and found them to be realistic and interesting.
I think The Dollhouse would be a great read for a book club.