The Doll Factory

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

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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This is such a great book! It's so disturbing and creepy, but it's done in a very subtle way. Nothing feels over the top or too much. The writing is phenomenal, and I love the oddness of the characters. It's a really intriguing story, and I'm so glad I read it. 

There is some animal abuse in here that was hard for me to read, but the story is so amazing that I kept on going. It was worth it! 

A super big thank you to NetGalley and publisher for giving me a free copy in exchange for an honest review! :)
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Wow! Super creepy! A novel of art and dark obsession. The story takes place in 1850's London. When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost she agrees on the terms that he will teach her to paint. From there she meets Silas and things take a very dark and twisted turn. This is a chilling and very disturbing gothic tale of art, love, and dark obsession. It creeped me out. It's like watching a horror movie. The author has amazing imagination. What a stunning debut!
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I devoured this story. Set in Victorian England, it is written with all of the gritty layers I hope for with gothic fiction. This easily feels like the tones of popular authors of the time which, for me, is addictive and sucked me right in. I loved every single lush detail and quirky character. This was unlike any newly released book I have read.
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Obsession! Man, that can be a scary word, right? Obsession can come from a place of jealousy, greed, or even illness. Obsession is an idea that can take over every aspect of one’s life. Of course, it often starts small but when a person is obsessed with winning, dating someone, having the most followers on social media it can become the only thing that is important to them. The detrimental part is when it becomes unhealthy because we have crossed a line, we can’t come back from…like this story! 
The Doll Factory is a creepy, psychological thriller. It is very descriptive so you can really picture the characters and some of them are just frightening. I wanted to close my eyes! The Great Exhibition is coming to Hyde Park, in the 1850s, and everyone wants their art on display. Silas and Iris happen to meet that day. For Iris it is a brief encounter, nothing more. For Silas she is the only thing he can focus on. Iris is asked to model and learns to paint and even falls in love. Silas though, he has other plans for her. There is an interesting supporting cast in this one and be prepared for descriptions that might turn your stomach. Silas is a taxidermist and collects strange things. This one is a slow burn that you can see coming, but a couple things still shocked me.
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A thriller/stalker set in Victorian London. I liked the characters and the time period was well researched. Some descriptions of the times, I did gloss over as the were a bit too gory for my taste. At times, it did seem that the pace of the story was very slow. Overall, I found this to be an interesting read. I received a complimentary copy from NetGalley and the publisher and this is my honest opinion.
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Gothic novels are not usually my jam, but the buzz around The Doll Factory had me intrigued. I'm glad I gave it a chance, as I breezed through this oh so creepy and thrilling story.
Macneal's highly atmospheric Victorian era London leaps from the page, no question. But what I most appreciated about this novel was the richly layered characters, some becoming more empathetic and others becoming more and more sinister as the plot thickens. Silas is a villain that I won't soon forget, and felt reminiscent in many ways of Joe from Caroline Kepnes' You. But, unlike the aforementioned You, the object of obsession in The Doll Factory is given a complex personality. I felt a great deal of empathy for Iris, and the intricacies of her relationship with her sister, with Louis and with the requisite street urchin with a heart of gold, Albie - who also has a much more robust inner life than a typical Victorian scamp.
There is also a clear theme on feminism and the plight of an unmarried young woman that felt like a fresh take on historical fiction from this time period.
“she has been careful not to encourage men, but not to slight them either, always a little fearful of them. She is seen as an object to be gazed at or touched at leisure … something for which she should be grateful. She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make the men feel snubbed.”
This novel has a little something for everyone: multi dimensional characters, rich atmosphere, historical fiction, mystery, thrills, suspense, with a little horror thrown in (taxidermy description is not for the faint of heart). My only reservation would be for a reader that wants to be invested in romance. Yes there is a love story, but I did not feel invested in it, and I thought Iris could do better. 
Many thanks to Atria books for the complimentary review copy!
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Book and Film Globe review: 


Review by Michael Giltz

Debut novelist Elizabeth Macneal sets The Doll Factory in Victorian England, with the backdrop of both the Great Exhibition of 1851 and an artistic revolution led by the self-dubbed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Iris, a striking and talented would-be painter who is trapped by circumstance, connects the two worlds. She wastes her talents by crafting dolls in the window of a little store, on display side by side with her pox-scarred sister.

One of the artists in the PBR becomes determined to paint Iris, bewitched by her unusual looks and, soon, her talent. Another man, Silas, is obsessed with displaying his taxidermy skills at the Great Exhibition and adding Iris to his “private collection.”

It’s a Dickensian novel, with a clutch of promising characters like the laudanum-addicted owner of the doll factory, a street urchin who finds dead things and sells them to the taxidermist, and, of course, two sisters trapped by fate in their miserable jobs and straitened lives.

But the more time we spend with these people, the less interesting they become. The characters never surprise us for a moment, never truly spring to life. And the longer they go without surprising us, the more two-dimensional they seem until the entire plot is fit only for a melodrama performed on the stage. At the climax of the tale, all that’s missing is a moustache for the villain to twirl and a train to barrel down the tracks where a heroine wails for help.

Nonetheless, Macneal sets up her story well enough. She spends her best effort on the twin sisters Iris and Rose. Iris is the homelier of the two until smallpox afflicts Rose, robbing her of both her beauty and her beau in one fell swoop. She spurns Iris but they must work shoulder to shoulder all day long at the doll factory.

Salvation arrives for Iris when the artist Louis Frost asks the shy woman to model for him. Of course, this is really damnation for her since a model is little better than a whore, however noble Louis’s intentions may be (and  his intentions are noble, tiresomely so). Yet Iris risks it when he offers to teach her to paint. But Silas always lurks in the background. He obsessively follows Iris around town, imagines an intimacy between them that never existed and vows revenge when she “rejects” him.

It’s hard to say when the novel lost me. Was it the street urchin with a heart of gold, a lad prevented from warning of danger only by the most random of acts?

Was it the artist Louis? Yes, he’s wealthy and unconventional. So we can maybe forgive his cluelessness about how much Iris risks by saying yes to his desire to paint her. But can he really be so daft as to consider it a reasonable plan for Iris to blossom from a promising student into a major artist that might well exhibit her work alongside his in just one year’s time?

Worst of all are the novel’s plodding “revelations” about Silas’ madness. He seems bonkers from the start, and I soon realized the truth about the lies Silas tells himself, which stretch back to his childhood. So when Macneal reveals towards the end how mad he really is, I couldn’t help but think, “I know! I know!”  It’s OK for readers to be a few steps ahead of the characters, but we shouldn’t be miles ahead of the author.

And did everyone have to be quite so precisely what they seemed at first blush? Mightn’t Louis have been a little less noble in his desires? Did every hooker need to be tragic and kind? Wouldn’t the creepy Silas have been creepier still if he seemed more human and less mad?

Macneal is a talented potter as well as a successful author. But I fear her first work seems a bit of a crock. I wish she’d taken the raw material, kneaded it all together, tossed it back on the kiln, and had another go.
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I did not finish this, not because it was bad, but  it just wasn't for me. Nothing sparked my interest, and some things were just a little too uncomfortable for me.
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I really enjoyed this debut novel by Elizabeth Macneal.  The Doll Factory is set in the Victorian and it is a uniquely dark, twisted thriller from that era.  Granted, this novel is more graphic than other mysteries and thrillers in this genre, so don't make the mistake of thinking it is a cozy mystery.  It is not that at all.  Iris and Rose are twin sisters who work in a doll-makers shop.  Rose has been physically ravaged by Small Pox.  Iris dreams of being an artist.  When Iris gets the opportunity to work as a model for an up-and-coming painter in exchange for painting lessons, she jumps at the opportunity even though it will disparage her reputation.  Art models were apparently akin to prostitutes in those days.

Unbeknownst to Iris, she has captured the attention of Silas, an artist whose specializes in turning dead things into art....sometimes killing them to make it so.  Silas turns out to be quite mentally unstable and sets his sites on forcing a relationship with Iris, with her barely noticing his clumsy efforts.

In a time period when gender and class were the primary determinants of how ones life would unfold, options for the poor and female were limited. Either they remained practically destitute or they had to get lucky enough to gain the favor of those in other classes.  When Iris is targeted, at her social class, her likelihood of aid was not strong.  

There is romance and some sex.  There is definitely some cruelty toward animals.  While it is never graphic regarding the animal cruelty, it is still disturbing for someone like me, who hates the thought of animals being killed strictly for art.

Thanks so much to the author, NetGalley and Atria Books for providing me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.  Elizabeth Macneal is an author to watch!
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