Book Review – The Address by Fiona Davis

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by Edith Cody-Rice

The address of the title refers to the famous Dakota apartment building in upper west side New York, home in the twentieth century to Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary Clooney  and a host of other celebrities, most famously Yoko Ono and John Lennon who was murdered in front of its gates in 1980. It was commissioned in  by Edward Clark, founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company who hired architect  Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to build the first multi family elegant residence for the wealthy far north of the centre of New York City at the time. It opened its doors in 1884,

Fiona Davis is the New York based author of The Dollhouse, a best selling tale set in another famous New York hotel, the Barbizon. The Address is her second novel.

The story revolves around the Camdens: the fictional family of an architect who worked for Hardenbergh and who were tenants in the building, and two women, a senior servant at the Dakota in the 1880’s and a descendant of a ward of the family, Bailey Camden, a New York designer in mid 1980’s New York. The servant is Sara Smythe who has been attracted to manage the Dakota by Theodore Camden just as it opened.

The story opens in the Langham Hotel a posh, exclusive hotel in late 19th century London, England. Sara is the illegitimate daughter of an earl who seduced Sara’s mother, his housekeeper. She is unacknowledged so has none of the access to the power and privilege of aristocratic England. She is head housekeeper at the Langham when she meets Theodore Camden. She accepts his offer of a position at the new Dakota thinking that she has a rather bleak future ahead of her in England, and sets off on this new adventure, a major transition in the days before airplanes, telephones and e-mail.

Bailey Camden is the modern day designer whose enters the story in 1985, 100 years after the opening of the Dakota and the arrival of Sara. She is a recovering alcoholic, just out of rehab, unemployable because of her prerehab antics, who is hired by a wealthy Camden cousin to renovate an apartment in the Dakota. She is the descendant of a boy taken in by the Camdens who was raised as their own, but not included in the fortune that the family left. Thus, she and Sara share upper crust roots but not upper crust lives.

The story alternates between 1885 and 1985 and combines mystery and family drama all in the elegant and baroque atmosphere of the Dakota. A number of characters who define the two eras make appearances to set the scenes. It is ultimately a tragedy for Sara, not so much for Bailey. There are plenty of twists and turns, betrayals and surprises to keep the reader interested. The characters outside of Sara are thinly drawn making this a light read, but the story itself, full of action, and the descriptions of life in 19th century New York are enough to justify reading to the end. To lend authenticity to the novel, the author incorporates real people into the story, including both  Edward Clark who died before the opening of the Dakota, and the architect Hardenburgh. The denouement is satisfyingly surprising.

The novel is published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House

354 pages