Book Review: The Address by Fiona Davis

For some reason, this has me all stirred up. I guess because all this— the building, the tenants, the history inside these walls— it means something to me. I know it affects you the same way.

Alternating between 1885 and 1985 in New York City and the narratives of two women, The Address tells the story of one building at the forefront of the Gilded Age of architecture, the families that inhabit it and their ability to withstand the test of time.

The name of the building is the Dakota Apartment House, and it is the largest, most substantial, and most conveniently arranged apartment house of the sort in this country. An astonishing geographic and architectural landmark, the Dakota will undoubtedly be known as ‘The Address’ of New York’s West Side.

Sara Smythe is the head housekeeper at the prestigious Langham hotel in London, but when she saves the precocious young daughter of the American architect Theodore Camden, she is given an opportunity that will change her life forever.

Camden offers Sara a job as the manageress of his newest architectural creation, The Dakota. A multifamily estate on the pioneering West End of New York City.  Designed to offer the convenience of a city abode without sacrificing the service and amenities of a country estate, The Dakota has claimed a unique stake at the forefront New York real estate. Much to the surprise of her surly mother, Sara accepts the position and voyages across the Atlantic and into a whole new life.

She shifted to the other side of the carriage and stuck her head out the window. An enormous building, the color of butter, seemed to have been plopped down on the flat landscape by a giant, like something you’d find in a German fairy tale. She counted nine stories with windows that a man could stand in and not reach the top pane, and a complicated gabled roof lacking any consistent pattern. “Is that it?”

Working closely with Mr. Camden to finalize the variety of tasks required of a new building before the tenants arrive, Sara begins to feel quite taken with the architect.

She’d craved his company the past few days, the way he looked at her and the way he listened to her when she spoke. Not in an intimate way, she told herself, as that wouldn’t be proper. But he was a kind person and she hadn’t had many friends.

Though she tries to resist his charm, she enters naively into a professional friendship turned tête-à-tête which quickly escalates into an affair. Caught up in the romance of it all, Sara forgets about Mrs. Camden and her energetic children who suddenly tumble back into the Dakota and fill its rooms with innocent glee and spousal suspicion.

When Sara is caught with a priceless possession of the Camden’s hidden in her desk drawer, the finger of suspicion points blatantly to her, though the truth is not as it seems. The judge sentences her to rehabilitation on ‘the island’ and she is whisked away. But she has a secret of her own hidden beneath her frock.

“Do you not know where you’ve been put away?” Sara looked at her. The woman was young, with kind brown eyes. She didn’t wear a hat, and snowflakes dotted the waves of her hair. “A private hospital?” “No. We’re going to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.” A madhouse. They thought she was insane.

 

A century later, we are reunited with The Dakota which is in shambles as the result of an assortment of owners with varying degrees of taste and senses of preservation. Here we meet Bailey Camden, a struggling young women recently ejected from drug rehab and crashing on her cousins couch in exchange for her expertise as an interior designer. Bailey is put to the task of assisting her cousin’s drastic and destructive renovation of the family apartment within the historical property.

Desperate for a new start, Bailey suppresses her angst at the obliteration of history and takes matters into her own hands by hiding the valuable pieces of decor in the basement storage. With the help of the building super, also a recovering addict, Bailey is able to save much of the priceless artifacts and discover some of her own history in the meantime.

This is where are two stories converge and we learn that, to Bailey, The Dakota means more than just a historical piece of New York architecture; it is an heirloom that opens many doors towards securing her future.

But it was the way the woman stood, the line of her neck, the set of her mouth. Bailey’s parents had a photo album with a photo that was an exact match, except that it was taken in this century, not the last. Her father holding a newborn Bailey in his arms, with the same half smile.

The Address by Fiona Davis is a sumptuous historical fiction that chronicles two women on the brink of opportunity and the struggles they face within the walls of The Dakota.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Dutton Books via Netgalley

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