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The "address" mentioned in Fiona Davis's new book is the Dakota apartment building in New York City. In chapters that evoke the Gilded Age, Davis follows Sara Smythe, an English housekeeper who is recruited to come to America to manages the newly build Dakota, to which New York City's nouveaux riches are flocking. Alternate chapters follow Bailey Camden, employed as an interior decorator at the modern Dakota, Bailey is a poor pseudo-relation of the well-heeled owners of the modern Dakota and, it seems, some sort of relative of the Dakota's original builders. Bailey becomes intrigued to learn that an architect associated with the Dakota's creation and with whom she shares a last name, was murdered, and that Sara Smythe was accused of his murder, then disappeared.
Dramatis personae: 1885: Sara Smythe, seamstress, housekeeper, an illegitimate daughter of an Earl; Theodore Camden, brilliant young architect with a vision for the future and a wandering eye for Sara; Minnie Camden, Theodore's long-suffering wife, mother of three; Christopher Camden, foundling child raised by Minnie, who will grow up to father children and grandchildren who are still alive in the book's "present"; Nellie Bly, the famous newspaper reporter who, pretending to be insane, gets herself committed to Blackwell's Island and writes an exposé; Daisy, a young housekeeper at the Dakota who bears watching, one of Sara's employees; 1985: Melissa Camden, self-centered owner of the Dakota who is waiting for her trust fund to be delivered and saying "charge it," who has no taste nor sense of history, and who lives for the next line of cocaine or the next fashion statement; Tony, he follows Melissa's trust fund; Bailey Camden, Melinda's poor relation, just back from rehab and fragile, she ekes out by carrying out Melissa's latest decorating whims to update her apartment at the Dakota; Jack Camden, Bailey's father, auto mechanic, widower, estranged from his family; Renzo, building Super at the Dakota and a straight-up guy; Kenneth, artist, African-American and gay, who is living out his final years at the Dakota, where his father and grandfather had been employed as service personnel; nurses and doctors at Blackwell's, maids, carpenters, police officers, tourists, and Mrs. Astor's 400.
Ms. Davis' latest is evocative of Gilded-Age New York, its terrible inequalities, its snobbery and snooterie, and its great opportunities for the ambitious and powerful. Davis book follows the Dakota Apartment's opening days, and the employment of Sara Smythe, a "lady manageress" imported from England by the building's architect, Theodore Camden. Sara must navigate foreign mores and her ignorance of her own weaknesses as a woman in a man's world. As she so navigates, we follow her through a different New York: one in which the Dakota is on muddy fields, a long way from the bustle of downtown; a New York in which Lady Liberty has not even been erected on her pedestal, in which no building is over a few stories tall, in which women and children had little protection under the law..
Alternating with Sara's chapters, we meet Bailey Camden, an alcoholic newly sprung from rehab. The date is in the 1980's, a hundred years since the Dakota opened its doors. As a result of Bailey's alcoholism, she has been fired from her interior design job and, like so many of our contemporaries, is trying to make a living and finding it hard to do so. Still haunted by her mother's death in a car accident, unable to connect with her still-grieving father, she finds help in the anonymity of the AA meeting, and temporary work with the wealthy owner of the Dakota who wants Bailey's help to decorate her apartment in the latest garish style. Bailey is related to the owner, Melissa Camden, by adoption, and, since the Camden family built the Dakota, Bailey becomes interested in Theodore Camden, who appears to have been murdered shortly after the hotel opened. These chapters, besides mentioning the death of John Lennon, who once lived at the Dakota, are less successful at evoking the 1980s, which is, at this writing is thirty years in the past, nearly old enough to be called "history."
To avoid giving away several surprises, I must pass over some plot elements in silence. However, I must tell you that Sara and Theodore begin a romantic relationship and Sara becomes … embarrassed. We become history voyeurs as they attend a formal ball thrown by one of New York's wealthiest families. In a period set piece, Sara and Theodore watch the Statue of Liberty come in through the Narrows by boat from France.
Theodore may be an amalgamation of famous, visionary architects of the Gilded Age. In fiction of the period, such as that by Edith Wharton, the architect is a vibrant, energetic culture hero who is sweeping away the old and making way for the new. In real life, two famous architects of the era were Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright—Wright in particular comes to mind, because he considered sex with multiple women as a necessary adjunct to creativity, and because his life was darkened by tragedy.
Bailey, through patient looking through old trunks and old drawings, by learning to marshal her demons, by opening herself to the lives and stories of the denizens of the Dakota, and by learning that people and talent are of value, tracks down exactly how she is related to trust-fund Melissa, and to the brilliant architect who briefly wooed his building manager. The novel ends with the good guys winning and falling in love, and the bad guys receiving their come-uppance, but I will not tell you how. You will have to read it.
§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She teaches American Literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, August 2017
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