A debut novel about the renowned Barbizon Hotel and the generations of women who might have lived there.
Darby McLaughlin is a plain girl from a small Ohio town. In 1952, she moves to New York to enroll in secretarial school. Her father has died, her mother remarried, and Darby, who doesn’t expect much in the way of marriage prospects, would like to find a way to support herself. She moves into the Barbizon Hotel for Women, famed residence for luminaries such as Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, and others. By some administrative fluke, Darby is placed on a floor of aspiring models, among whom she doesn’t exactly feel at home. She’s lonely and struggling when she meets Esme, a young maid who works at the hotel. As the two become friends, Esme draws Darby into an underworld of jazz and drugs. She even convinces the shy Darby to perform at a nightclub. Darby’s story is intertwined with another, set more than 50 years later. Rose Lewin, a journalist, is living at the Barbizon, which now houses condos, and working on a story about the hotel’s earlier, more glamorous days. Rose’s personal life is disintegrating, but as it does, she delves deeper into her story, interviewing longtime residents and becoming obsessed with a certain “Miss McLaughlin” who lives in the apartment beneath her own. She begins to uncover a conspiracy of hidden identity, drug trafficking, and undercover police. This is Davis’ debut novel, and it’s a lively one, tripping along at a sprightly clip. But her story lacks emotional depth, and her characters never quite come alive. The conspiracy isn’t convincing, and, worse than that, neither is her 1950s New York. Neither the Barbizon nor the spicy, mysterious nightlife outside it ever quite evoke the vivid portrait that Davis seems to have sought. Instead, her flat characters stay trapped in their flat landscape.
Despite moments of liveliness, this period piece fails to ignite much warmth, let alone a spark.