Having finally cleared my backlog of ARCs I may have gone overboard accepting and requesting them in July. I received six unsolicited requests (some from publishers I’ve worked with) and I requested an additional four. Of all of those I received four, including this one.*
When the publisher reached out to me about this book I was intrigued by 1880s New York and the fact it was about a woman running an apartment building. I figured this is historical fiction, but pretty progressive historical fiction so why not give it a go. What I didn’t realize, because I didn’t re-read the blurb before I started it was that there is a time and narrator shift of 100 years that caught me off guard.
The book is a combination of historical fact and fiction. The Dakota is a real apartment building (Wikipedia link) and John Lennon was murdered there, and there was an expose of the treatment of patients and prisoners on Blackwell Island/Roosevelt Island, but the rest Davis created herself to dramatize the opening of the building and those connected to it.
When I say I was caught off guard by the narration shift, I was REALLY caught off guard. I had to go back and re-read the dates for the first chapter and then the second chapter because the first few sentences didn’t make it seem like there was that much time that passed, other than there were a LOT of gay references and I was like wow 1880s New York is really gay, but then I realized it was 1980s and things clicked into place.
The two stories are those of Sara Smythe, the 1880s apartment “lady managerette,” and Bailey Camden, the 1980s recovering alcoholic interior designer:
“A century apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages—and each takes refuge and solace in the Upper West Side’s gilded fortress. But the Dakota [the apartment building] can’t hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers inside could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden—and the woman who killed him—on its head.”
You’ll see the other thing in the blurb above that I wasn’t aware was common knowledge when I started the book: a murder. That also caught me off guard, but was ultimately handled really well.
Sara’s story was stronger than Bailey’s, especially at the beginning, but how the two stories thread together kept me engaged throughout the book. Some parts were too predictable, Bailey’s dad and the fact that ultimately Theo was a dick – just not how much of one, but some things weren’t as predictable creating the needed drama for the climax and ultimate conclusion of the story.
Early in the book I felt Davis was giving too much of the story away, but as the story progressed I realized that even though she gave away what felt like revelatory facts, many were either red herrings (Wikipedia link) or were facts from “a certain point of view.” (Thanks Obi Wan!) Ultimately, I wasn’t shocked by any of the revelations as there were enough clues to figure them out, but not enough that I was able to go in to the final chapters knowing 100% what was happening. I knew what the options were and kept switching back and forth in my head over who did what and what belonged to whom.
If there was one thing I didn’t particularly like about the book, and I think it’s because I feel they can make or break a book for me, it was the lack of depth of minor characters. There were a couple that still stand out to me Kenneth, Daisy, Melinda, but in general they just didn’t make an impact for me. This didn’t ruin the book for me, but it also kept it from being pushed into that OMG everyone should read this category.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the book was Davis’ reverence for the building and architecture in general. Perhaps because I’m working for a design school now I felt she did a great job of writing about it, but I felt she wrote Theo, Bailey, and Renzo (another character in the 1980s) to have such a reverence to architecture and the future of architecture (Theo) and the history of architecture (Bailey and Renzo). It definitely helped getting me into the mood for each of the two disparate storylines.
Recommendation: I enjoyed this one. It took a bit to get into Bailey’s story, but in the end I was invested and the last chapter of both stories provided the resolution that I needed to enjoy the book. I almost feel like Davis could’ve written two impactful novels with the stories, but the dual narrator/time seems to be her schtick as apparently that’s what she did with her debut novel The Dollhouse, which I may have to check out.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for my honest opinion, no additional goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “The site of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sara’s world upside down.”
Closing Line: “As if hypnotized by the music, the puppy settled down and Renzo sang quietly, softly, in Bailey’s ear to the very end.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)