My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fiona Davis has written an interesting novel about the life of Darby McLaughlin, a young, single woman who, in 1952, moved to New York City to attend Katherine Gibbs, a secretarial school. She has a reservation at the Barbizon hotel for Women and plans to stay there while she studies. When she arrives, she learns that the floor where the secretarial students stay is full, so she's been placed on a floor with women who are studying to become models. This is her first bit of bad luck, because most of the models look down on Darby, whom they consider plain and awkward. One of them even puts Darby in a dangerous situation. When Darby finally befriends someone, it is Esme, a maid in the building who treats her well, but has a reputation for acting wild.
The book bounces between Darby's story in the fifties and the story of Rose in 2016. Rose is an investigative reporter whose career and personal life have both taken downturns. Her boyfriend decides to go back to his wife and children, leaving Rose alone and without a place to stay. Meanwhile, she's lost her job as a television newscaster and is working for an internet news startup. Her salary is lower and she doesn't have as much exposure, but she has some freedom to explore the stories she finds exciting. This leads to her interest in some elderly women who have been living at the Barbizon for many years, since before it was converted into condominiums. Rose sees a story in the lives of these women, specifically in the life of one who always wears a veil to cover a facial scar.
I love the structure of the novel, with the present day story involving an investigation into the story set in the fifties. (I use a similar technique in my own novels.) I found the Rose plot less interesting than Darby's, but liked the way Rose discovered aspects of Darby's story through her investigation. The history of the 1952 setting rang true, especially the romance and often seedy nature of the jazz clubs and also the women whose limited opportunities left them with a belief that finding the right man was their only path to a successful life.
Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul
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