Historical fiction meets real estate porn in this tale revolving around Manhattan’s storied Dakota apartment building.
Davis (The Dollhouse, 2016) tells two, eventually intertwining, stories that take place 100 years apart. In 1884, Sara Smythe is head housekeeper at London’s Langham Hotel when she accepts an offer to work at the Dakota, just opening in the wilds of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The very notion of upper-class families living in shared space had been considered gauche, but the Dakota—a “communal living experiment,” as one of the characters puts it—becomes a showpiece for affluent families who can’t afford a Fifth Avenue mansion. In 1985, New York City interior designer Bailey Camden has just been sprung from rehab only to learn that her former employer doesn’t want her back. She gets a commission from her friend Melinda (a sort of relation—but that’s a long story), who owns an apartment in the Dakota. Unfortunately, Melinda’s renovation ideas are painfully out of step with the Gilded Age grandeur of the building. Back in the 1880s, Sara gets involved with married architect Theodore Camden and winds up in an insane asylum on Blackwell (now Roosevelt) Island. The real-life pioneering reporter Nellie Bly engineers her release, and Sara returns to the Dakota only to be accused of a grisly crime. Bailey, meanwhile, stumbles across some strange artifacts at the Dakota that will link her, inextricably, to Sara. Though her characters lack depth, the author does a good job showing how tough it could be for women in the 19th century. At the same time, the historical asides about old New York and the Dakota’s beginnings are fun to read.
The writing is only serviceable, but this jam-packed narrative unfolds at a brisk clip—even if, in the end, the convoluted plot turns have a dizzying effect.