Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on January 27, 2015
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For a small-town girl with big-city dreams, there is no address more glamorous than New York’s Barbizon Hotel. Laura, a patrician beauty from Smith, arrives to work at Mademoiselle for the summer. Her hopelessly romantic roommate, Dolly, comes from a working-class upstate town to attend secretarial school. Vivian, a brash British bombshell with a disregard for the hotel’s rules, rounds out the trio of friends. Together, the girls embark on a journey of discovery that will take them from the penthouse apartments of Park Avenue to the Beat scene of Greenwich Village to Atlantic City’s Steel Pier — and into the arms of very different men who will alter their lives forever.
I received this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for an honest review.
Laura, Dolly, and Vivian meet at the historic Barbizon Hotel. The Barbizon, interestingly enough, is a real place that allowed women to come to Manhattan to pursue their professional interests while having a “safe” space to stay. It’s housed Lauren Bacall, Sylvia Plath, Grace Kelly, and many other famous women as well as countless other female professionals who remain nameless. The history of this hotel is fascinating. I’d love to get my hands on a book about the Barbizon, but one doesn’t seem to exist. Someone needs to make that happen ASAP. Though, Michael Callahan did write a piece on The Barbizon for Vanity Fair, which I believe inspired him to write Searching for Grace Kelly.
Even though I enjoyed reading Searching for Grace Kelly, I think it falls flat. There are too many main characters. Out of Laura, Dolly, and Vivian, I think Callahan could have cut Dolly’s character, or at least demoted to a secondary supporting character with a smaller role. She’s the token fat friend who’s obsessed with getting married and covets the lives of her friends. She’s a static character while Laura and Vivan are dynamic. Unfortunately, Dolly’s inflated story line means that we lose time with the other two. This hits Vivan’s story line pretty hard. She’s the one I wanted to know so much more from. She’s a smart cookie. And though I wasn’t shocked by her relationship issues, I did want to know more about them. I wanted to see it more in action. And I wanted more time inside her head before her story ends.
Laura is the darling of the book. She’s the character that I enjoyed reading the most. Callahan creates good conflict between Laura’s well-bred upbringing and her wish to write. She does not want to be the girl who attends Smith to find a husband. She wants something more for her life. She wants to write. She wants to be the editor of a magazine. She wants independence. Unfortunately, Laura really doesn’t get any of these things. Her love interests are necessary but I think their over-prominence in the story ruins an otherwise strong character. I felt like I was reading the book version of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie. Fashionable girl meets dashing boy. There’s a misunderstanding. They stop talking to one another. Then, after a twist of fate, they’re shoved back together and it’s all love and magic and romance. The end.
My point here is that Callahan sometimes relegates his characters to stereotypes. You cannot be a strong, independent woman who is comfortable with her sexuality without succumbing to Vivan’s fate. You cannot be a strong woman with internal conflict about her future without a man to support you à la Laura. If you’re Dolly, you cannot be fat and happy at the same time. These are some pretty serious issues in the novel.
What saves this book in my opinion is the way Callahan makes The Barbizon a pseudo-character. It has a life and a vibrancy of its own. I enjoyed reading about the policies and rules and rule-breaking happening in the hotel. It was a great backdrop for these characters. The historical details were correct and brought an authenticity to the story and the city.
I think most readers will enjoy Searching for Grace Kelly. Even though there are some serious flaws with the characters, Callahan makes 1950s Manhattan come to life.
© 2015 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.