There were many things that attracted me to this book and made me very excited to read it.
What were they? Female characters are at the front and centre of the story. It’s set in New York of both the present and the past (big plus point). There is a historical mystery to solve. I mean this should have been tailor made for me. All the signs looked good but … unfortunately it didn’t live up to the promise. The bones were good and solid, but the execution lacked sharpness and skill.
The Dollhouse is set in two time streams – 2016 and 1952 – and tells the story of journalist Rose Lewin as she investigates a mysterious death that occured in her apartment building many years ago. She lives in what was formerly the Barbizon Hotel for Women, a place where young ladies lived in New York when training for work as models, secretaries or editors, until they could snag a suitable husband that is (it was the 50’s after all). Over time it ceased to operate as such and was subsequently turned into a series of apartments but a few of the former residents (now very old women) still occupy rooms and it is one of these characters that is the subject of the mystery.
All this is taking place while Rose is grappling with a failed relationship (she was dumped by her boyfriend who is returning to his ex-wife), a sick father (dementia) and an unsatisfactory job writing puff pieces for an online magazine. She is definitely a woman under pressure.
I loved the idea of a mystery being investigated in the present while we see how events transpired in the past (the chapters alternated between the two times). I thought each stream kept pace with the other adequately but found the modern setting more believable and interesting which I was honestly surprised by. Picking up the book I expected the exact opposite to be true. I felt the setting of New York in the 1950’s offered so much possibility in the way of atmosphere being created but that it was somewhat wasted. I was hoping for much more flavour and feeling of that era – people, place, attitude – but it felt strangely absent. I mean … New York of the 1950’s should have been a character all on it’s own but it never came through in the writing. It felt a bit cold and mechanical with not enough detail.
I also felt the plot lost it’s way in the 1952 time stream. It seemed to hum along ok (nothing spectacular but satisfactory) and then seemingly all of a sudden here were elements that were introduced near the end that I felt were unnecessary and done so in too much haste. As a result it all felt artificial. To be fair they had been hinted at earlier but they seemed to come to prominence very quickly and I couldn’t help but feel surprised at how things happened. I would have preferred the author had kept it simple and stuck to more intimate, personal motives and reasons for the events. Davis could have used the time on a more in depth examination of character motives, drivers and relationships – fleshed those aspects out in more detail.
This also applies to the handling of the characters in the modern time stream, Rose in particular. She was experiencing a lot of personal trauma but as a reader I never seemed to get a real sense of her desperation or the despair that she must have been feeling, especially regarding her father’s illness. The author seemed to set up the scenario but never really followed through with it fully. We never saw or learnt in any meaningful way just how her father’s condition affected her feelings with others, or influenced her drive to solve the historical mystery. I think if she had it would have added greatly to the feeling of the book and our connection with Rose. I liked her as a main character and wanted to know her better.
Another area that I felt could have been improved upon was the sharpness of the writing. I believe that this was the debut novel for the author and perhaps with more experience she will be able to create more of an atmosphere and a sense of drama as events play out. I haven’t dipped my toes into her subsequent novels so I don’t know if this is the case. This story should have built towards a climactic finish (in both timelines) but it never got there. Certainly the plot progressed to an end point but without urgency that it deserved. I guess another way to put it is … my light should still have been on in the early hours of the morning as I was compelled to keep reading to the last word, manipulated and driven by an expertly nurtured curiosity but alas no. Dammit!
The words that come to mind regarding the ending in particular are lacking in tightness and sloppy construction. I know this sounds harsh but it is a true reflection of how I felt.
Final thoughts ….
This is a good book that had the potential to be great but never hit the high mark that I was hoping for. I really wanted it to work and work well as there was so much rich source material as well as potential ideas and I would have preferred a deeper character study that helped drive the mystery and push events along.
The best way I can describe The Dollhouse is a solid read but an opportunity missed which is a shame. But as always with books, this is my opinion and yours may be different so read and experience it for yourself.
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)