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    A delight - like reading lemon sorbet...

    What a delight this was, like reading lemon sorbet – light and refreshing, with a bit of bite if you take too big a spoonful, too quickly… My review copy of The Dollhouse was graciously provided by the publisher, Dutton (Penguin Random House). The book opens in contemporary Manhattan, and shifts perspectives – and stories – back and forth by chapter. The two storytellers are Rose, the modern-day protagonist, and Darby, the 1950s version. The two women bear more than a few traits in common and find themselves in startlingly similar straits as their lives and circumstances dance in and out of their control – sometimes due to their own misguided decisions, but occasionally due to those of the people they (think they can) trust. The setting is what makes this a novel novel though, and separates it from other books of this genre. The Barbizon Hotel for Women (the eponymous, and derogatively-nicknamed, “Dollhouse” of the title) is the home of both Darby and Rose – and scads of single women who moved to New York City in throngs in the 1950s to “better themselves” through education, modeling, or the other “respectable” jobs open to women of the day. The Barbizon has housed famous (and infamous) women throughout the years, from the darkly brilliant Sylvia Plath (perhaps the most well-known resident, albeit one of those of shorter duration – she only lived there for a month) to the sunny Grace Kelly, from the sassy Cybill Shephard to the terribly talented (and terribly controversial) Joan Crawford. It was the jumping-off point for some of the most famous women of the twentieth century, before they were known by anyone outside of their families. It was designed as a “safe”, “family” environment for these women, many of whom traveled to the big, bad city from suburbs and rural spots across America. The truth, of course, is that nowhere is always safe, not even family environments – and the Barbizon was no different. The personalities, the secrets, the in-fighting and machinations – this is what made the book fascinating to me, and what tied the lives of Darby and Rose together into an interesting narrative. The two women’s stories intertwine as Rose finds herself swept up in the drama mystery of Darby’s life in an attempt to unravel some of the drama and mystery in her own. It sounds much more convoluted than it actually is. Perhaps sorbet isn’t the right image, after all – sorbet is, after all, a relatively straightforward and predictable dessert. The book is more of a Sidecar (the drink, not the conveyance): dignified cognac dashing up hard against overly sweet triple sec, with a dash of sharp bitter lemon to somehow tie it all together by adding just enough kick to make the otherwise sickeningly-sweet bits palatable… There are definite chick-lit elements here. I don’t see the audience for this one branching very far from the “women’s fiction” section of the bookstore… Still, there is interesting history here for those interested in the developing roles of women in America, with definite parallels (and some sad realizations, tied to said parallels) to the perilous life of modern women as well. In many ways, the challenges facing the “career girls” of the Barbizon are all too relatable to women in the 21st century. It’s still a struggle to balance demands between family and job, even if the nature of those demands have shifted rather dramatically since Darby’s day. Rose certainly qualifies as a modern “career girl” – independent, successful, rising in her profession – right up until she walks away from those things and finds herself on a quest for the perfect risotto for her man after his tough day at the office… Her journey to realize what she wants out of her own life, and how those things are mirrored in the lives and stories of Darby and Stella and the other denizens of the “Dollhouse”, is both what kept the book from feeling like a stereotypical personal-growth narrative and what rendered it one. Still, Fiona Davis has a lovely, easy-going, refreshingly straightforward writing style, and she paints characters with a lightly bristled brush such that I honestly didn’t mind… Here are a couple of my favorite quotes – the first from Rose, the second, Stella. They give you a taste of the old and the new, the seesaw quality of the story; ironically, the “old” feeling quote comes from the newer protagonist. It is, in many ways, Rose’s sense of history and “how things should be” that keeps her from feeling like a stereotype of a “modern woman” – and is, again, one of the things that endeared her and the story to me. QUOTES: -- “I just prefer long-form writing. Where the writer tells the story, visually, using words. I think we rely on images far too often these days. No one can be bothered to learn about any subject in depth, because it’s all about the images. There’s no intricacy.” -- “If you’re lonely and scared, you better deal with it now, because life only gets lonelier and scarier, no matter h
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