Lisa Doucet Reviews Charis Cotter’s The Dollhouse
What was meant to be the beginning of a long-overdue summer holiday with her family very quickly turns into something else entirely for poor Alice. She and her mom and dad had planned a getaway to a rental cottage by a lake. But the very day that they were due to leave, when Alice arrives home from school, she finds her parents in the midst of a heated argument.
Her father has, once again, been called away for work at the last minute. This time, her mother has had enough. She says that she and Alice are leaving.
Alice’s dad heads to LA for work and her mom accepts a job as a live-in nurse to an elderly lady who lives in a big, old house in the country. Alice finds herself on a train wondering if her parents will truly get a divorce now, while her mother cries quietly in the seat next to her.
Blackwood House, their temporary new home, turns out to be a grand and majestic old mansion on a hill. Their taxi driver tells them that the house has been locked up and empty for nearly 70 years, until very recently when elderly Mrs. Bishop from England bought the house and restored everything inside it.
Despite the fact that it has the air of a haunted house, one that is filled with secrets, Alice is amazed by the luxurious furnishings and magnificent architecture. She finds a new friend in Lily, the housekeeper’s daughter whose warm smile and boundless energy are infectious.
Then she discovers the dollhouse in the attic. A miniature version of Blackwood House itself, the magnificent dollhouse replicates the original in every minute detail.
She and Lily secretly visit the dollhouse, and Alice somehow finds herself transported into the past, where she meets Fizz and her sister Bubble. Fizz and Bubble and their parents once lived in Blackwood House, and their father commissioned the dollhouse.
As things become increasingly complicated in Alice’s real life, she becomes more confused about the dollhouse world and the connection between the two. What is real? Did Fizz and her family truly exist? What was their connection to cranky Mrs. Bishop, who now lives in this house full of mystery? And is Alice truly travelling back in time, or is it all an elaborate dream?
Charis Cotter excels at crafting clever and compelling ghost stories, and this latest one is no exception. The story is intricately woven, with delightful and unexpected twists and turns. It carefully balances the elements of Alice’s real life, present-day situations with the story of the dollhouse.
The pacing is controlled and deliberate, and the tension builds slowly and meticulously. The setting is vivid, with Cotter’s evocative prose creating a strong sense of place and an eerie, expectant atmosphere.
Alice is a likeable, realistic protagonist who is confused and uncertain about her parents and the very real possibility of a divorce. As she gets caught up in the mystery surrounding the dollhouse, she dares hope maybe, somehow, there truly is magic at work and she can tap into that magic to reunite her parents.
Her yearning for a happy family is poignant and believable. Her friendship with Lily is delightful. Described as being developmentally delayed, Lily is depicted as being resourceful and enthusiastic, and a deeply loyal and caring friend.
Meanwhile, Fizz is a noteworthy character in her own right. She has strong opinions that she is not afraid to share, and she often displays a maddeningly superior air that irks Alice. Yet her love for her sister Bubble is staunch and unwavering.
While this book is heavily atmospheric and rife with ghosts and dramatic tension, it is not so much scary as it is mysterious. There are clues that point to the climactic revelations but the story remains fresh and unpredictable.
It is also a story of family and loss and letting go. Cotter artfully explores many very real and complex human emotions while creating an engaging story of mystery and magic. A wide range of readers will enjoy accompanying Alice on her journey as she unravels the secrets of Blackwood House and its inhabitants past and present.