“Around her was treeless farmland and cattle grazing in muddy fields. It was as if the landscape had been flattened by an enormous gust of wind and only now was coming back to life…This was New York?” Fiona Davis, THE ADDRESS
After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she’d make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility—no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one’s station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else…and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.
In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey’s grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won’t see a dime of the Camden family’s substantial estate. Instead, her “cousin” Melinda—Camden’s biological great-granddaughter—will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda’s vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in…and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages—for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City—and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side’s gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich—and often tragic—as The Dakota’s can’t hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden—and the woman who killed him—on its head.
With rich historical detail, nuanced characters, and gorgeous prose, Fiona Davis once again delivers a compulsively readable novel that peels back the layers of not only a famed institution, but the lives—and lies—of the beating hearts within.
The construct of novels set in multiple time periods lends a natural suspense, but it is rare that each time holds the same level of intrigue for the reader. THE ADDRESS, by Fiona Davis, however, succeeds where many other dual period novels fail; both story lines are fully developed and equally compelling.
Lovers of New York City will thrill over period details–delighting in imagining the beginnings of the Dakota and the city at large–and will enjoy learning about the famous men and women who lived within the great halls of one of its most famous landmarks.
Through dialogue and description, Davis moves with ease between the centuries, clearly showing the challenges of each time while illustrating the connections between the past and the present. Her characters make bad decisions, but they remain sympathetic, earnest, and endearingly human, and some of their struggles are particularly moving and relatable.
Davis is an assured and gifted storyteller, and I look forward to reading more of her work. Those who enjoy dual period novels and stories from the Gilded Age will devour THE ADDRESS.