First of all, how is it that summer is already over?! I know this wasn’t the case in most of the country, but here in Seattle we never had sustained summer heat, just a few days here and there. It still feels as if summer lies ahead, even though September is chock full of big releases. Having said that, here are two books that did not go beyond ‘OK’ for me, but could be perfect for another reader.
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
Published by Dutton
Publication date: August 23rd 2016
Because of my love for all things about New York City The Dollhouse seemed like an easy choice of reading. Author Fiona Davis makes the centerpiece of the novel the famed Barbizon hotel, which in the 1950s was the only place to live for nice young women in Manhattan. It was a women-only boarding house with very strict rules of conduct and no men allowed in the rooms EVER. Eighteen-year-old Darby arrives in 1952, fresh from Ohio to attend the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school and is soon caught up in the excitement of life in NYC. In 2016 Rose Lowe moves into the Barbizon with her boyfriend, which has now been converted to condos. A reporter, she smells a story when she finds out that one floor of the building is still the home to some of the women who had lived there decades ago.
Davis does well with life at the original Barbizon and the energy of so many young women converging to find themselves. Darby quickly learns that the hotel is neatly divided by floor into different groups based on aspirations—models, actresses, and office workers—and that there is very little interaction between them. She is already something of an odd duck because she wants to learn secretarial skills to support herself, not just to find a husband. Rose, on the other hand, reads more as one of the 1950s women. She has given up her career and her apartment to move into the Barbizon with her newly divorced boyfriend. When he decides to go back to his ex, she is left with no place to live and a job she hates. Davis ties the past and the present together when Rose encounters Darby and tries to suss out her story, something Darby clearly does not want to share.
The Dollhouse is fun for its glimpse into an exciting time for women, one that allowed for something other than marriage and motherhood. Where it lost me was in the present. I simply could not be motivated to care about Rose—maybe because she acts like a doormat regarding her boyfriend, which I never enjoy unless there’s good revenge to be had. I wanted more of Darby and the historical Barbizon. Those years after the war ended and so much of life changed. A purely personal preference and one that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this nice, light novel with it’s twist of mystery.
Sleeping on Jupiter reads like an Arabian Nights tale with three elderly friends traveling to a town of temples on the Bay of Bengal in India. They are joined in the story by a temple guide who is in love with a young man who works for the tea seller and a young woman from Norway who makes documentaries. Author Anuradha Roy brings them all together in Jarmuli, but it is the 25-year-old Nomi who stands at the center of the novel. Interposing the present with Nomi’s past gives the novel an even greater sense of mystery and foreboding.
After Nomi’s entire family was killed when she was six she was taken away to live in a guru’s isolated compound, possibly somewhere near Jarmuli, with many other little girls. Later she was adopted by a Norwegian woman, but by that time her childhood made her immune to real love and caring. She is back in the area to find answers, but to what is not quite clear. Her journey is in stark contrast with Latika, Gouri and Vidya, who are determined to enjoy a girls’ trip with sightseeing and adventure. While their journey is not as freighted as Nomi’s Roy still makes them feel real with all the concerns and realities of aging.
Sleeping on Jupiter left me sad because the story was so bleak for all its characters and without any real feeling of redemption or hope at the end. Roy’s writing is as lush as the environment she’s describing, but there is a darkness over everything. The whole masquerade of religion being used to hide crimes against children is especially difficult to read. It should not be ignored and Roy’s prose is beautiful even when painful, but it was not the right book for me right now.