If you are of a certain age then you were just in your teens when Sylvia Plath committed suicide and you probably read The Bell Jar which young people, especially young women, still read today. Sylvia Plath was very interesting to English major types because she was young and she was already famous. She won a sort of internship at Mademoiselle Magazine and went off to live in New York City. Quite an accomplishment for someone just starting out in life and we will never know if, or how much, her early success contributed to her clinical depression. We know she was gone too quickly and we wondered what else she might have done if she had survived.
For a while the young Sylvia Plath lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women which may have gained its fame from her short tenure there. I remember being fascinated to learn that there was a NYC residence that housed only women, with strict rules about guests of the male persuasion, much like the dorms I lived in at college where we were separated by gender and girls had serious rules, governing both curfews and male guests. It seemed so elegant and atavistic at the same time for a city as metropolitan as New York to have this type of restricted boarding house among its many idiosyncratic offerings.
In her book The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis, takes her readers into The Barbizon about 50 years after the days of Sylvia Plath, and at the same time, in flashbacks takes us back to the Barbizon in the 50’s. Her main character is a journalist of sorts for an online publication who happens to live at the Barbizon, now in transition with some units redone and sold as condos and some still rented to original tenants. After her married boyfriend, the owner of their shared condo, throws her out to go back to his wife she continues to try to interview some of these permanent residents who were there in the old days. One resident is especially interesting. She walks her dog everyday but no one has seen her face in many years. She wears a veil and there is a story that she has a terrible scar on her face and that someone fell from the lounge on the roof of the hotel to her death and that the mystery woman was with her when she fell.
Upon hearing this story our journalist friend is even more determined to hear the stories that the older residents have to tell. It’s almost like solving a mystery but one that was obviously resolved long ago as the veiled lady is not in prison. When circumstances conspire to allow Rose Lewin to install herself (without permission) in the mystery woman’s apartment the story begins to take shape. (There are repercussions.)
Although I did not get really attached to any of the characters in The Dollhouse, perhaps that was not the point of the novel. The author, through flashbacks does recreate the experience of living in the Barbizon which was very similar to living in a very classy dormitory. She also takes us into the jazz club scene and some of the diversity that is always encountered in this iconic city. And there is a bit of romance in the mix. However the content is a bit light and I was not successfully drawn into feeling emotionally involved in either the characters or the plot. (There was a spice book mentioned that I would love to see and smell). This is a good read, but not a great read.