The iconic Dakota apartment building, famous for housing the famous and infamous alike, has an indisputable majesty. With its gargoyles, dormers, balustrades, and balconies, topped by its blue-hued copper roofing, it is a hallmark of the New York skyline. Located just off Central Park at 72nd Street, in an area not yet totally overrun with 90-story buildings that line Billionaire’s Row 15 blocks south, it maintains its landmark status. We can only hope it will endure for years to come.
When it was built in 1884, it was considered to be the city’s frontier—most residents lived near Wall Street, and the developer, Edward Clark (of the Singer Sewing Machine Company), risked his reputation and pocketbook to build the city’s first cooperative apartment house, and so far north, to boot. The wealthy had townhouses, the poor, tenements. The idea of sharing laundry and services with one’s neighbors, something Europeans had done for years, was cutting edge, and many turned their upper-crust noses up even higher than usual at the mere thought of it.
But residents came. Fiona Davis weaves a historical fiction story that floats between the 19th and 20th centuries, leaving the reader to wonder how the two will merge, and why we should care about the characters. Like her previous novel, The Doll House (read the review), the two protagonists end up sharing similar challenges, face difficult choices, but have different ways of dealing with betrayals by loved ones.
Managerette, Mrs. Sara Smythe (actually a Miss, but it wouldn’t do to have a single woman running The Dakota) got her gig in New York for doing a good deed for architect Theodore (Theo) Camden in London, who paid her passage to New York. It’s a prestigious post, overseeing the opening and management of the new building he’s responsible for, a grand apartment house in New York. It’s no mean task—and her deft skills are called for from the get-go. Working side by side, Sara and Theo develop a professional relationship that, not surprisingly, morphs into something much more.
Fast forward to 1984, when interior decorator Bailey Camden, just out of the tony Silver Hill drug and alcohol rehab in bucolic Connecticut, needs a job. Her friend and shirt-tail cousin, Melinda, who has inherited an apartment at The Dakota, engages her to renovate it. While Bailey shudders at her marching orders to turn the priceless, stately décor into Melinda’s vision that is tantamount to a bad dream, she befriends Melinda’s downstairs gay neighbor, Kenneth, and the building’s super, Renzo, both of whom are aghast at the task she must perform. Taste is not dictated by sexual orientation or job description, Bailey quickly learns, and Kenneth and Renzo become her fledgling support system. That’s a good thing, it turns out.
Back in the 19th Century, Sara Smythe does an excellent job, and her reward is being framed for thievery by one of her employees, a young girl whom she had tried to help, and ends up railroaded into a mental institution. Days turn into months, and Theo, the man she thought she could count on, in a cruel twist of fate, lets her languish there until the horrors of the institution are revealed by Nellie Brown, the undercover alias of real-life investigative journalist Nellie Bly. Through her work, Sara finally is released. As an aside, most of us agree our modern-day healthcare system is a mess, but it pales by comparison to how the mentally ill were treated a century ago—and if nothing else, Davis’s novel does us a service by opening our eyes to those sewers of yore and making us appreciate how good we have it now.
Back to Bailey, who discovers some telltale clues in the storage room that cause her to query her own ancestry and embark on a series of steps to discover the truth, at the same time stumbling in her struggle to maintain her recovery. She’s aided by Renzo, whom she espies in her first AA meeting in New York, and whose own sobriety offers a blueprint she can follow.
Back at work, Bailey takes another trip to the storage room, which houses an expensive artifact that paves the way to the novel’s denouement. Alas, all doesn’t end well for everyone. Melinda’s (and her boyfriend, Tony’s) drug and alcohol addictions end up in the predictable bad behavior that is almost always a byproduct, and their friendship with Bailey is revealed for what it is: a veneer to serve their selfish interests, devoid of the components of compassion and giving that a healthy relationship demands.
Despite her disappointment, Bailey’s plight has a pleasant ending. She makes peace with her distant father by helping him resolve his grief, discovers that Renzo can be counted on after all, and through her hard work coupled with her self-discovery is bestowed with a gift well beyond what she had ever hoped for. Sadly, Sara Smythe didn’t fare so well. Times were different for lower-class women back in the 19th century, and readers can be grateful that women have more choices now—and aren’t forced to rely on a male benefactor to survive. And all of us Central Park lovers who round the bend at 72nd Street on the West Drive and catch The Dakota in our sights will be reminded of just how far we’ve come.