The Dakota in New York is America’s first luxury apartment building, designed by the architect Theodore Camden. In 1884, a woman working at a hotel named Sara Smythe earns Theo’s respect and admiration, and he hires her to be the managerette of his new apartments, set to rival New York’s famous Fifth Avenue. But their story ends in tragedy, with Sara in prison for his murder, and Theo before beginning what should have been a brilliant, successful career. One hundred years later, Bailey, an interior designer and recovering drug addict finds herself renovating the apartment of the great-granddaughter of Theo Camden. Her own grandfather was raised by Theo’s widow, but their connection remains a mystery, except for a enigmatic drawing from Theo to Sara which hangs in her childhood home in New Jersey. Bailey literally unpacks her family’s repeatedly tragic past and tries to salvage as much of the apartment’s originality as possible, as well as trying not to relapse in this brilliant, engrossing story about family tragedies and the lost Gilded Age.
Other books by Fiona Davis include The Dollhouse, about New York City’s Barbizon Hotel for Women set in the 1950s, and the The Masterpiece about a lost art school inside New York’s Grand Central Station.
Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman tells the true story of the odd heiress Huguette Clark, who owned an empty mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and others as well, dying in a hospital bed where she didn’t need to be.
Based on a real American scandal about children misplaced as orphans and a contrast of present and past histories, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is another riveting historical fiction novel.
A Gentleman in Moscow is about a man who is sentenced to live in the attic of a luxury hotel in the midst 1920s Russia and impending war.
One of the elegant desserts served at The Dakota was “Washington Pie,” which is actually a layered vanilla cake with raspberry or apricot preserves between the layers of cake. It is topped with sifted powdered sugar. This is a miniature version of it, to be served at tea time in the afternoon, with a pot of hot black or herbal tea.
“Washington Pie” Tea Cakes (Raspberry Sponge Cakes)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 stick or 1/2 cup salted butter
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 6 tbsps raspberry jam, or strawberry or apricot, if preferred
- 3 tbsp powdered sugar, for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350° F. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and granulated sugar. Allow to combine for two minutes. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
- To the stand mixer, add the sour cream, vanilla extract, and milk. When those are combined, slow the mixer to low speed, and add the flour mix in small increments, allowing each to combine before adding the next. When the flour is mixed in, add the eggs, one at a time, making sure to crack them in a separate bowl so no bits of shell accidentally fall into the batter. Heavily spray with nonstick cooking spray or oil and flour a mini cupcake tin. Fill each cavity two-thirds full, and bake for 14-16 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out with crumbs and not raw batter.
- Allow to cool 15 minutes, then take a cooled cake and top with a tablespoon of your preferred jam. Invert another cake and place atop the jam. Continue with the rest of the cakes. Using a sieve, sprinkle the powdered sugar atop the assembled cakes.
- Why was the “idea of sharing common space and amenities with others, as the French do, considered gauche” by people at the time of the Dakota being built? What could be some of the benefits to living that way, especially for lonely people like the elderly, or even for small children?
- Sara’s mother believed that it wasn’t wise for her daughter to work in a place like the Dakota just because she would be among the wealthy, and that “Money’s no sign of good breeding.” What in her life had led her to feel that way?
- Why did Sara’s mom “constantly reminding her of her blood connection to nobility, while at the same time cursing her bastardy” make Sara good at her job, especially when she had to sound authoritative? How was America a more forgiving place for her than England had been?
- How was Renzo not Bailey’s usual type? What were some of the ways he was different from Tristan? Did that prove beneficial to her in the end?
- At one time, Bailey had stayed sulking in her room because her parents wouldn’t let her skip her father’s birthday dinner to go out with friends. What made her later wish she could reverse time and change the outcome of that night? What happened that to her was “unacceptable”? How is her wish to reverse time a warning to the rest of us?
- Sara didn’t know at first why she was placed in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. Why was she there? Whose fault was it?
- Bailey felt that the best thing about group therapy meetings was that she “could vomit up all [her] thoughts and feelings and crap, but didn’t get advice in return.” Why was this what she wanted, and what kind of things did she share? Why might she have felt more comfortable sharing those things with strangers than with her cousin?
- Why did imagining she was “the lovechild of Theodore Camden and Sara Smythe” make Bailey feel better?
- How did Sara get free, and what did freedom mean to her at different parts of her life? What about for Bailey? Had either of them ever taken freedom for granted? Do we ever do the same, in some way?
- How was Bailey “making excuses, staying in a poisonous relationship” with Melinda? What made her unable to see it, when Renzo saw it clearly? How was Melinda poisonous?