Despite moments of liveliness, this period piece fails to ignite much warmth, let alone a spark.

THE DOLLHOUSE

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.

Pub Date: Aug. 23, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-98499-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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