The Doll Factory

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

Part thriller, part historical fiction, this is a story about love and obsession, told against the backdrop of The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.  Much of the historical background is true, and many of the characters are actual historical figures.  I found myself looking up quite a few names, not to mention wombats.  
Told from three points of view, the characters could've come straight from a Dickens novel.  There's a wonderful sense of place and time created by Macneal's descriptions of the streets and homes of London.  Backstories are revealed slowly, teasing the reader with just enough detail to keep us guessing as to just how twisted one of the characters really is.  Alternately heartbreaking, horrifying, and hopeful, I very much enjoyed reading this one - it was an excellent debut novel, and I'll be very much interested in reading whatever Elizabeth Macneal comes out with next.
My thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing a copy for an unbiased review.
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This was quite a creepy novel set in Victorian London.  It has the makings of a very good read, but I must admit that it just wasn’t for me.  With that being said, I’m sure that others will really enjoy this story.   I appreciated the opportunity to receive an advance reader’s copy of this book.
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To say that I was exited to get this book in the mail is an absolute understatement. I actually squealed in excitement when I opened this book up!

The cover is magical and haunting and the summary sounded like something I was absolutely going to sink my teeth into immediately! Victorian England, creepy stalkers, and all sorts of disturbing gothic devices were promised in the summary.

I could hardly contain my excitement. I was ecstatic to read this one and cracked it open almost immediately and what awaited me in the pages was a dark and disturbing story in addition to creepy dolls.


In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

“A page-turning psychological thriller” (Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist) that will haunt you long after you finish it, The Doll Factory is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and The Historian. (Summary from Goodreads)


This book was recommended to fans of The Alienist and Drood as well as The Historian. I loved The Alienist and didn’t care for Drood so based on that I was hoping that this book wouldn’t land in the middle. I thought this book might be a bit more historical fiction with a little romance in it, but this was definitely more of a historical psychological thriller with heavy gothic influence.

This book did have romance in it, but no in the classical way one thinks of historical romance. This romance was more obsessive and focused on the darker side of that obsession. Though darker in nature I enjoyed the way this story unfolded and it wasn’t the pleasant comfortable story one is used to reading. This book was surprising in lots of ways and it often made me uneasy in reading but I was hooked on Macneal’s prose and story. I couldn’t get enough of this one with it’s dark plot!

This is Macneal’s debut novel but I would never have guessed that reading this book. The story was sophisticated and interesting focusing on big themes like the role of women and the darker sides of London and its lower classes. Plus the dialogue was on point, it was which with atmosphere, and her historical research evident! The Victorian era is often remembered as glamorous and elegant, but books like this remind people that this era might have been that for the blue bloods but for the average person, life was definitely not glamorous.

The only thing that I thought was a little frustrating was that it was a bit of a slow burn rather than a quick page turner. This is a book that you are meant to savor rather than rush through. This book definitely needs to be on your radar for the fall. It’s a fabulous read and if you love creep historical fiction, you need this book on your self!

Book Info and Rating

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 13th 2019 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books (first published May 2nd 2019)
198210676X (ISBN13: 9781982106768)
Free review copy provided by publisher, Atria Books, in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and in no way influenced.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: historical fiction, thriller, horror, gothic
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I could not finish this book. Believe me I tried. I would have to cleanse my mind after a disturbing passage and read a book or two before going back. But I kept running into so many disturbing passages that I just no longer wanted to come back to it. I had to give one star for this review, if not I would not have given any stars. 

I want to thank Net Galley and the author for allowing me an advanced copy but this book just wasn’t for me.
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This is clever and could have been a good slow burn thriller, but the excessive animal cruelty ruined the book for me. It felt gratuitous and made me sorry I read it. 

It’s a shame, because the atmospheric build here really had some potential, but thrillers that get unnecessarily nasty always feel like they’re just going for shock value or compensating for plot issues. This was a good enough story that it didn’t need to compensate that way, so the whole thing just felt gross.
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The Doll Factory takes us back to 1850 London and introduces the reader to a wide array of fascinating characters.  At the center of the story are twin sisters Iris and Rose, who toil under the watchful eye of Mrs. Saulter painting china dolls.  The beautiful Iris dreams of being an artist.  When Iris meets pre-Raphaelite painter, Louis, she agrees to be his model in return for art lessons, thus escaping the oppressive doll store.  Along the way, we also meet Silas, an incredibly creepy taxidermist, and Albie, a street urchin who sometimes collects dead animals for Silas.

All of the characters are beautifully written and developed. Author Macneal deftly creates an atmospheric mid-century London that absorbs the reader.  The storyline is strong, the characters are interesting, and the writing is stellar.

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me an advance copy in return for an honest review.
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I was genuinely surprised, in the best way, by this novel. It is exactly what I want a gothic Victorian novel to be - creepy, macabre, engaging, and raw. I was drawn into the world that Elizabeth Macneal painted across the pages, and found myself thinking about these characters long after I left the book. I was definitely offput by the intense descriptions of dead animals, but that didn't retract from my overall strong engagement with the storytelling.
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The Doll Factory tells the story of a woman who runs away to become an artist's model with dreams of becoming an artist, and is stalked by a creepy taxidermist and, really, that's all there is to this book. Though the Victorian London setting was skillfully rendered, the beautiful pieces of The Doll Factory never quite came together.
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The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is set in Victorian London at the time of the Great Exhibition. A shopgirl, Iris wants to make her place with aspirations as an artist. These aspirations are unachievable to a girl in her place in the world. A taxidermist, Silas, has taken a liking to her and has her in his sights. 

Iris currently works with her twin sister Rose in Mrs. Salter's Doll Emporium doing sewing and painting of doll faces. Rose contracted smallpox while Iris did not thus Rose to have scars on her face that keeps her from wanting to go out and do things even meeting a man. So to her, her life consists of staying where she is at whereas Iris wants to become a painter.

Silas, a misfit whose life consists of stuffed animals, sometimes not very well. He gets his animals from an orphan, Albie. He has brought a two-headed dog to Silas that he wants to enter into the Royal Acadamy. His attraction to Iris has taken to him stalking her.

Iris happens to meet Louis, he wants her to model for him and she wants him to teach her how to become a painter, thus begins a friendship that turns into an affair. She does eventually paint a picture that is entered at the Royal Academy along with a few by Louis. She does not know though the dangers that confront her so she is basically unawares when her life is in danger from Silas and she walks right into a trap.

This book gives a reader into the life of Victorian London, the artist's life, the mean streets of London, the harshness of the people on the streets. This book is a gothic thriller with beautiful, graphic if not gruesome descriptions of life in Victorian London. The characters of Rose, Iris, Albie, Louis, and even Silas were well written. I almost felt sorry for Silas, almost, when reading about his earlier life with his childhood friend Flick. 

I love a good thriller and this one was a pleasure to read! Read it in a few sittings!
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dnf, i really want to try this book again one day but now is truly not the time. this was slow and confusing for me
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I got this book on Netgalley in exchange for a fair review. I liked this book but was not quite as excited as the reviewers in the description here on Goodreads.   This book is about a woman named Iris who is working painting porcelain dolls. She secretly dreams of becoming an artist and gets the opportunity to learn art from a painter in exchange for her modeling for a painting. There are a few side stories happening as well, the most disturbing being the one associated with the character Silas. He is a man who collects dead things and stuffs them or displays them. He has an interest in the stranger specimens. Iris has a deformed collarbone and this catches his attention. He immediately becomes obsessed with her and misinterprets all of her interactions with him.
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The blurb caught my interest, but the book fell a bit short. I haven’t read many books set in Victorian London, and the author does use a lot of nice descriptions. It seemed to change from Victorian-era to modern thriller by the end. The story is told in alternating POVs, which I enjoyed. There was certainly a “creep” factor to the story, but the slow pace made it hard for me to stay engaged.
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This was a really dark book, with a scary story that progressed to what I would call a thriller and then a real horror story.  The setting is Victorian London, so it is also historical in nature and the societal details are riveting.  Iris and Rose are working for Ms. Salter, a laudanum-addicted older lady who is very demanding. Iris and Rose have the daily task of painting the faces of dolls.   Iris dreams of being a real artist and her chance comes when she meets Louis Frost, an artist who wants her to pose for him in exchange for lessons.  Almost at the same time, Iris encounters Silas, a taxidermist who is cruel and obsessed.  This is where the book almost lost me because it falls quickly into the depths of the madness of Silas, a man so obsessed with having Iris for his own that he loses sight of reality.  The animal cruelty in the book was very off-putting, so I had to just skim or skip those parts.  As a debut novelist, the author does a good job of drawing the reader into the story.  The book is well-written but very dark.  I enjoyed reading the portrayal of life in Victorian England, especially the attitude towards women.  All in all, this is not a book that I can give a ringing endorsement to as it was very dark and disturbing and not as entertaining as I had thought that it would be.
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Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler and NetGalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. 

I will always show up for dark, scheming, less-than-sane characters who I would never want to meet in real life, thank you. 

The Doll Factory transports the reader back to Victorian times in a vivid depiction of life, death, art, and just a smidge of crazy mixed with a Gothic atmosphere.

If you read the blurb, you pretty much know the entire plot of this story, so there’s not many twists and surprises to be had. The real pleasure of the read comes in the character development and watching things unfold, even if you know where it’s ultimately going. Because it’s surprisingly easy to rationalize madness, as it turns out.

My Thoughts:

- Oh, the worlds people can build up in their minds, based on one singular moment experienced two entirely divergent ways. It was magnificent and creepy. For Iris, meeting Silas is an entirely forgettable moment. In fact, Silas’ role in society, in general, seems to be a forgettable one. But for Silas, the moment becomes everything. It was so stinking creepy watching these interactions play out from two conflicting perspectives and the way Silas builds up scenes in his mind that then become real to him, even though they never happened. 
I have a bit of a, I admit, macabre fascination with the point where a seemingly normal person becomes unable to function in society and slips into madness. In Silas’ case, though, we also get to learn about his history, bit by bit, and that was equally gripping, watching it unravel and trying to suss out reality from these intricate fantasies he’s created.

- I don’t think this is supposed to be a Cinderella retelling (at least, I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere), but it definitely felt like a Cinderella story to me, with a bit of a darker twist. You know, because chopping off bits of your feet and having crows peck your sisters’ eyes out isn’t dark enough. Whether intentional or not, the book feels like its basic structure is borrowed straight from Cinderella. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if this is the sort of trope you like. I didn’t know this going in, and it’s not exactly what I look for in romance. There’s also more to the story than just this, because there are other point-of-view characters that operate outside of this. But it was obvious enough where at some point, I paused from reading and had to go look up if I’d missed somewhere if it was mentioned as a Cinderella trope.

- Louis is so charming that even though I wanted to be frustrated by his naivete, I just couldn’t. There’s just something about his character that is charming, even in its flaws. He almost perfectly embodies the beliefs of the pre-Raphaelite artists all on his own. He approaches his art so seriously, studiously, almost manically, wanting to get everything just right and just so. But in his life, he’s laid back, carefree, not nearly as put together and observant as he is as a painter. I thought it was a really interesting juxtaposition.

- If you read the blurb, you pretty much can guess the entire plot and how the book will end, so you really have to be in it for the characters. As I’ve said, I really like the descent into madness books, so I was really here for that. But it’s a bit of a double-edge sword, because that means there are long sections where it just drags and feel like not much is happening. Because wow, quotidian life back then was just as boring as quotidian life now, except with a layer of grime and disgust dusted on top.

- The Gothic vibe is strong with this one, and Macneal does a great job of portraying Victorian life without shying away from the gritty, disgusting realities. Trigger warnings: sex, prostitution, child abuse, animal cruelty, crude language, drugs. Basically … fairly accurate Victorian historical fiction. I enjoyed how dark the book was, because let me tell you, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Actually, that time period kind of sucked for a large majority of the population. And boy does it show. Just because the setting is full of darkness, though, doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love, like questions of loyalty, family bonds, and the beauty and meaning of art. The passion with which the painters talk about their work and the little society they form is charming and served as a nice break from the darker context of the story.

Sticking Points:

- There seems to be a disconnect between the “arrestingly attractive” description of Iris in the blurb and her actual portrayal in the book. I’m not really sure why this is. Or even why Iris would be considered arrestingly attractive, because I sort of thought the point was that she was … normalish? Iris is one of a set of twins. In the book, though, her sister, Rose, is the one who has prospects and is sociable and eligible and likely to marry. It seems Iris is destined to be an old spinster, because when she was born, her clavicle broke and so her shoulder bone didn’t heal quite right and left her with a deformity. I actually loved the idea of Iris not being some jaw-dropping beauty, but someone who was found beautiful by these two men for entirely different reasons. Silas, in love with bones and uniqueness, of course would be attracted to her deformity. Louis, in love with art, would be struck at how well she fits the atmosphere of his portrait. To me, that makes a much more appealing story than “she was beautiful and so men loved her.” Which, like I said, that doesn’t actually seem to be the case in the book.

- There are three point-of-view characters, but only two of them really felt important, which was kind of disappointing because I liked the third character and wanted them to have a larger role. I mean, they sounded like they were geared up to play a significant role. There was so much foreshadowing and build-up for them to. Actually, their arc was pretty interesting, and their turmoil was relatable, stuck between obligation to family and doing the right thing. In the end, their role just didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, unfortunately, certainly not in the way I’d hoped. One could certainly argue that that was the point, especially given the Gothic context and all the other subject matter. All the characters were disappointed in some way, so why not the reader, too? That seems fair. Subverting expectations is also a legitimate strategy. But for me, I just really wanted that payoff somehow.

- The ending felt rushed and sudden, bumping right up against the actual climax of the book. The ending wasn’t unsatisfactory, per se. I thought it wrapped things up fine and was a good way to end the story. But it felt extremely abrupt, like there were still things that could have been said to smooth it out a bit more between the end of the story and the epilogue. I found myself flipping through the pages again, thinking maybe I missed something.

- The title is a bit misleading and sort of confusing, because very little time in this story is actually spent at “the doll factory,” and it plays basically no role in the overall plot. I was sort of confused, waiting for it to come back into play, thinking surely, if it’s the titular thing, it means something, right? But the actual shop did pretty much nothing except serve as a barrier for Iris, and one that she overcomes at the very beginning of the story.
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Set in Victorian London, The Doll Factory is well-written and Elizabeth Macneal knows her stuff when it comes to creating atmosphere. The story is dark and has a Gothic feel, which is fitting with the setting, and it has the potential to be the page-turning thriller promised in the blurb. However, it doesn't quite live up to that potential until the last twenty percent or so of the book. The pacing is quite slow and drawn out, and while I can appreciate atmosphere, there are some details I could've happily done without. I really didn't need to know the state of decomposing animals every single time one was mentioned. I know what happens when things decompose, and reading that description once was more than enough for me. The same can be said for taxidermy. After reading some of those descriptions once, the rest start to seem like filler and after a while, I started skimming those parts. As I said, things do pick up toward the end, but the rest could've done with some serious tightening up. I think this one boils down to just not the book for me, and someone who appreciates the more graphic descriptions would probably enjoy it more than I did. In the end, the book has its pros and its cons, which left me somewhere in the middle. I didn't hate it, but I didn't particularly like it either.
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I didn't know or even suspect until the Author's Note that this book is loosely based on a real person.. After reading about Elizabeth Siddal on the internet, it's obvious that much liberty was taken with the telling of this story. As a work of fiction I was total engrossed and entertained.
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I really enjoyed reading this book, not only for the story itself but also for the way it is written. This is a slow-building gothic that spends a lot of time setting the scene and establishing the characters before the action really starts. There's such a huge "ick" factor that I almost put it down more than once. I am so glad I stuck with it, though, because once the story really began to unfold I was totally invested in the characters and really wanted to know what would happen. It was increasingly harder and harder to put it down, and I willingly traded a good night's sleep to finish it. 

The basis of story isn't so unique - a very strange man develops a delusional obsession with a woman he has barely even met (she doesn't even remember the meeting). Things spiral downward from there. What made the book really interesting is the richness and three-dimensionality of the characters and the realities of their lives. 
As a work of historical fiction, I also appreciate that the story was presented in a way that highlighted the social aspects of the way people lived and the prevailing attitudes of the times. 

Victorian London seems to be the ideal setting for characters who in one way or another all choose to idealize their dreams rather than confront their harsher realities. I think the fact that Iris (the main character) is so much more grounded in reality than the others makes her all the more compelling. As a young, poor girl in Victorian London, it's very clear that the odds are against her in all ways. She's so richly developed that you can't help but root for her - which adds to the building dread as you also worry about what will happen to her (and the same could be said for her young toothless friend Albie, another character who really grows on the reader).
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Thank you for Netgalley and Atria books for an advance copy of The Doll Factory in exchange for an honest review.
I went into this book anticipating more of a horror story but was pleasantly surprised by this historical fiction story with a bit of a crime thriller added in for additional enticement.  
This book was well written and such an interesting time period.  I felt like I was there and could have run into Dickens or Oliver twist.  
In summary this was a story about 2 main characters, one a poor girl looking to become and artist.  The other MC is a lonely man who falls in love with our future artist but has a deadly obsession.
I give this one 4 stars rather than 5 only because it took a while for the thrill to kick in, the story begins as a historical fiction but ends as a serial killer crime story.  Think Jack the Ripper....  
Recommended for fans of Historical Fiction, Crime mystery and a touch of Gothic Horror.
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This book transports you back to the age of the Great Exhibition, at a turning point in art and technology, and during an era where the divide between poverty and wealth often meant death. Macneal completely immerses her readers in the time period and vivid characters. I only wish she had shed some of the middle development to move the story along quicker, or spent more time wrapping up the end. Other than that, it was a really interesting, suspenseful story.
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Victorian London depicted in such a rich, dark way.  Readers won't be able to put this down or get the feeling of London out of their bones.
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