The Doll Factory

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

Iris Whittle spends her days painting faces on dolls and her nights sketching in secret. She longs to be an artist, but her dreams seem wholly out of reach for a woman in her circumstances. Silas Reed is a taxidermist who owns a small curiosity shop where he collects and sells the strange, the grotesque, and the beautiful. 
It is 1850s London and the Great Exhibition is all anyone can talk about. Both Iris and Silas are drawn to Hyde Park to watch the construction take shape, and a chance meeting will forever change both their lives.
For Iris, the brief acquaintance is soon forgotten, but for Silas it becomes all he can think about, a growing obsession that may just consume them both.

I LOVED this book. This is a dark and twisty psychological thriller, written in sweeping, atmospheric prose. I was enchanted from the first page and could not put The Doll Factory down until I'd read every last word. 
Author Elizabeth Macneal is a true artist who has crafted an intoxicating story. Every character is fascinating and so fully formed, from main characters Iris and Silas, to the other major players. The pre-Raphaelite artists - who I knew nothing about before reading this book - are pretentious and charming. Louis Frost, one of the pre-Rahaelites who finds Iris while in search of a new muse, is equal parts endearing and exasperating. Iris's twin sister Rose is both fiercely loyal and painfully vicious. And Guinevere, Louis's pet wombat, stole the show and my heart! How such a large, furry, fictional rodent could be infused with so much personality is beyond me, but it was absolutely delightful.

Iris and Silas serve as our guides throughout the book, as we witness events unfold from both their perspectives. One of the many things that made this story so exquisite is how it perfectly captured how subtle assumptions and misunderstandings can spin wildly out of control. A phrase or a look that meant one thing to the giver can so often be completely misinterpreted by the receiver. 

Silas, in his obsession with Iris, reads far more into their interactions than she gives, and yet you can't help but remember times where your own hope and longing led you to wrong conclusions that ended in disappointment. It's in these embarrassing social truths that Silas's sins are made all the more realistic and terrifying. This is a man who has taken his assumptions and desires to such an extreme that there is no coming back. I was on the edge of my seat, so worried for Iris who is completely unaware of the relationship Silas has crafted in his head, a narrative wildly out of proportion with reality, and yet which makes total sense to him as he hurdles headlong down an all-consuming path of longing, jealousy, and wrath. 

Meanwhile, Iris is on a journey of her own. She agrees to become Louis's muse, a role considered not far above that of a prostitute in 19th century London, but only if he will become her tutor. He agrees and Iris's dream of becoming an artist could finally become reality. While we see Silas's obsession go from a simmer to a raging boil, we also see Iris's abilities as an artist bloom under Louis's tutelage and her own tenacity. Both aspects of the story are equally gripping. You can't help cheering for Iris in her small victories and mourning with her over each setback. At the same time, an encroaching sense of doom is traveling up your spine as you peer into Silas's mind and soul, knowing full well Iris is oblivious to this man and the darkness that has enveloped him. A darkness which is now reaching its tentacles ever closer to her. 

The other character which I haven't yet mentioned but which looms large over the entire story is the city of London itself. Macneal has painted a Victorian London so realistic that I could see and smell it in all its grotesque squalor and magnificent beauty. She doesn't shy away from the poverty that gripped large swaths of the city and describes it in visceral detail that left me squeamish but also appreciative of her candor. So, too, the height of abundance and grandeur is ripe with description and stunning to behold. To put simply, Victorian London comes completely alive in Macneal's deft hands. 

This is one of those rare books that I thought was absolutely perfect from start to finish. I can count on one hand the number of books I feel that way about, and The Doll Factory is now counted among them. Elizabeth Macneal's debut novel is not for the faint of heart, but it is for readers fascinated by human nature in both its best and most vile forms, for those hearts that sing over expertly crafted prose, and for anyone who just loves a gripping story. You won't be disappointed.
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Amidst the tableau of The Great Exhibition in London, 1851, young Iris accepts to become a model for painter Louis Frost (of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), leaving behind her tedious work at a doll shop for the more alluring world of fine arts. However, leaving her previous life is anything but easy: her twin sister, Rose, resents Iris’ newfound freedom and the possibilities that come with it, while her parents disavow her completely. There is danger lurking in this new life as well: a collector of oddities with a touch of madness has become transfixed by Iris’ unusual beauty, and will pursue her whatever the cost.

The Doll Factory is a wonderfully evocative novel set in Victorian England amidst the world of fine arts. The descriptions of well-known paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (e.g., ‘Mariana’ and ‘Ophelia’) were complemented by some Wikipedia searches while I was reading. The dynamics among the PRB painters comes fully alive, as well as their antics, rivalries, and fears of rejection by their contemporaries. The Doll Factory may be an excellent reading companion to Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron, also about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, specifically about the relationship between Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, and painter, and co-founder of the PRB, Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

What is most wonderful about The Doll Factory is that explores a variety of themes: painting, love, relationships of all sorts, madness, and the dark side of obsession. It is perhaps in this dark undercurrent where this novel is most successful, for the ‘collector of oddities’ is one heck of a creepy guy. People of all walks of life are at the center of this mash-up of genres, especially the working class, thus the reader gets a good grasp of the era viewed through the lens of some hard-working and barely-making-it characters.

I will be keeping an eye on what Elizabeth Macneal writes next.

Disclaimer: I received from the publisher a free e-book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
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Her eyes, sockets slightly hollowed, contained a loneliness and longing that felt at once familiar. It was as if an invisible cord united them.

Iris Whittle wants freedom, not to endure her sister Rose’s jealousy ‘until, at last, some scrawny boy fattens her with child after child’, slaving over laundry, cooking ‘rotten offal’ and  tending infants ‘mewling with scarlatina and influenza and God knows what else’. Iris and her twin sister Rose apprenticed at Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium, spends her day painting the delicate dolls faces, a ‘drudgery’- a dark skill at times painting custom dolls  from daguerreotypes of children, who may or may not be dead, ‘commemorative dolls’. She wants a way out of her life, but with a sick twin sister who relies on her, is marriage the only way? Youth and beauty is currency, but her passion is art, sketching since she was a child.

As The Great Exhibition “of the works of industry of all nations” is to be held in the Crystal Palace now being built in Hyde Park, London- it’s promise is calling out to Iris. It is a world for artists like herself  and what is more thrilling to someone whose life is nothing but toil, feeling like slavery? Then there is Silas and his specimens of the dead, his taxidermy shop, with aspirations for a museum, where he can share his world with the masses. If he could perfect preservation, freeze moments in time, rid the stench and rot of death…if only he could have better specimens, a thing so marvelous that others would be mesmerized, why then he would be someone! It’s never enough, these paltry commissions, not for a man of his ambitions! The average man has no idea the skill, the genius his creations require, no. It takes a discerning eye to appreciate the beauty, the art! These specimens are about life! Why do others only see the macabre?  At least he has ‘street brat’ Albie to scavenge for curiosities! It’s nothing for Albie using a hemp sack as his “Dead Creatures bag”, anything to make a shilling, a boy has gotta survive these mean London streets, even if you peddle death.

The 1850’s London our characters are living in is a far cry from the upper crust Victorian delicacy we think of- the fashion, the fine sensibilities, in The Doll Factory we have an atmospheric England with it’s more offensive smells and underbelly, the dark side of all those gentleman and their baser urges. Albie and others of his ilk turn to crime with limited choices, either pickpockets or prostitutes- their brutal worlds, never dreaming of the sheltered lives of children born to finer families. This is the darkest part of the novel, thinking of children up to their eyes in filth and the scum of the times. We love to look away from the ugly reality of the past, it’s hard to stomach, imagine living it. I’m the type watching Pride and Prejudice and thinking ‘wow, I wonder how awful the lives of the people serving the main characters were’, thinking ‘oh yeah, my luck I’d be the peasant, no time to pine after Darcy’. Not that I don’t love Jane Austen, I just think Victorian Times were more about the spread of infectious diseases like smallpox…syphilis… consumption- ah the past.

Back to the novel… it is through Albie that Silas has a most fortunate encounter with the beautiful Iris, honing in on an unusual part of her, awakening his obsession. Fate for some can be a dark shadow hovering, waiting for fulfillment. For Iris, it is her meeting with Lois Frost that is full of meaning, part of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), a man who trained at the Royal Academy and feels she would be the perfect model for him. A boon, he will pay her too! She sees this fine bit of luck as the the opportunity to learn how to paint under his tutelage, if he agrees it will seal the deal, her reservations be damned. There are more brave choices for her to make, sacrifices to earn that precious freedom to live as she wants, it could cost her not just her reputation but her family- but she can taste that other life, it’s so close. The threat of ruin isn’t enough to force her to change her course!

There is a thin veil between the present day and dreams for Silas as Iris has been sewn into the very fabric of his future. She longs to be Lois’s treasure, not imagining that she is already one man’s curiosity, the means to fulfillment- who says his visions are mad? Silas is biding his time, losing his grip on reality as each day ticks by. He wants to be taken seriously, he knows in time the world will see him as successful, fine gentleman! One day his work will pay off, then everyone who ever insulted him will be sorry. He is a man struggling with his obsessive desire, disgusted by others vices, while obsessing over Iris, watching, learning everything about her, more familiar with her habits than she herself is. The watching, lurking, waiting- this is how some men are forced to commune, to touch what they desire.

Obsession is shackles of the mind, much like ones used to keep someone in captivity. Silas is a tormented man, one who doesn’t take rejection lightly. She must she let him love her! He just needs her to accept his loyal friendship. She will be that someone who understands, accepts his world, his passion.

Everything is spiraling but that invisible cord, it connects them and everyone who stands between them.

Yes, read it if you enjoy dark historical fiction, and the underbelly of Victorian London. There is a stink of death clinging to the pages, the mad desperation of the lonely and the deception of our own minds.

Publication Date: August 13, 2019

Atria Books
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1850's London sees the installment of the "Great Exhibition", attracting artist from all over London the Hyde Park. Aspiring painter Iris, can't help but abandon her twin sister Rose, agreeing to pose for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis's latest painting, in exchange for art lessons.

When Little Albie reluctantly introduces the delusional taxidermist; Silas to Iris, Silas's interest turns into an obsession that will impact the lives of every character in this book.

Elizabeth Macneal, paints us a dark picture. 
With alternating narratives of Iris, Silas and Albie, the mood invoked in these chapters change so drastically from hope, to evil, to innocence.

A struggle between light and dark this book was an engaging page turner. 
Will definitely be on many must-read lists for 2019
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A creepy historical novel, this was very well-written and took you on quite a ride! I felt like I learned a lot about the era and art beyond the mystery! It veered a bit too much into the grotesque for my tastes, the taxidermist parts were a bit much. I felt like it was a little forced shocking at times.
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The Crystal Palace was built to house the first International trade fair. Championed by Prince Albert, the exhibition hall was a showcase of the Industrial Age's newest inventions. The art displays impacted Victorian taste and inspired an interest in Japanese and Moorish art. Objects included the rare, like the Kooh-N-Nor diamond, and the commonplace, like three Kentucky-made bed quilts. Then there were the curiosities of which the Victorians were so enamored. Fourteen taxidermists had displays like stuffed kittens sitting at a table having tea.

The Crystal Palace is at the center of Elizabeth Macneal's novel The Doll Factory. 

It is Dickensian in its sweep of characters. 

There are the enterprising street urchins Albie and his sister, children who take up any work to provide for themselves--including prostitution and providing dead animals to the taxidermist Silas Reed. 

Silas, damaged, unloved and unloveable, is one of the most interesting and chilling villains, more complicated than Bill Sykes and less self-aware than Uriah Heap. Silas is most drawn to curiosities, things both grotesque and lovely. 

Silas is fixated on the girl Iris, whose collar bone was broken at birth, leaving her with a marred beauty. 

Iris works painting porcelain doll faces with her sister Rose. Iris longs to escape the drudgery of her work, secretly painting with dreams of being an artist. Rose's gorgeous beauty was ruined by smallpox, leaving her bitter. Albie earns a bit by sewing simple skirts for the dolls.

And into this mix we have Louis Frost, a bohemian artist in the new renegade school of art called the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood. 

Louis needs a model for his painting. Iris longs to escape the drudgery of doll faces, secretly painting with dreams of being an artist. A pact is made: Iris will model for Louis and he will teach her to paint. 

Iris blossoms under Louis's tutelage. But a jealous Silas fantasizes she really loves him. We are taken into a horrifying descent into Silas's sick world, with a Gothic plot twist, and a climactic ending.

I loved this journey! As a devotee of Victorian Age literature and art, and for the page-turning thriller ending, it was perfect. 

I was given access to a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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One cannot read this book while not also experiencing all of the senses.  Oh my!  The reader is taken back to 19th century England.  Imagine living in the lower class and having to take horrible jobs just to stay alive—the language, the smells, the thievery...This is a story of twin girls who somehow manage to survive despite cruel life lessons.
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What a great tutor. Remind me of Silence of the Lambs. Creepy. It was a little show, but picked up quickly.
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Creepy psychological thriller. Had a Silence of the Lambs feel. Slow in the beginning, picked up mid way and could not put down .
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This was just a little too creepy for me.  Be aware that there is a 'deranged' taxidermist in this book and it may make a few people more than a little uncomfortable.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for this advanced readers copy.  This book is due to release in August 2019.
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The Doll Factory imagines an 1850 London that could easily have been written by Dickens.  We see Albie, the street urchin with but a single tooth, who collects dead animals for Silas, a taxidermist and a collector who dreams of having his own museum of oddities.  Twin sisters, Iris and Rose, paint and cloth china dolls for Mrs. Salter, their laudanum addicted mistress.  When Iris meets Louis Frost, a pre-Raphaelite painter, she strikes a bargain with him to model in exchange for painting lessons.  The book does a good job of conveying the limitations of being a woman in Victorian England.   Iris wants to be an artist, but it seems everyone, even Louis, sees her as an object.  

MacNeal has an eye for detail.  I’m always entranced by writers that can translate the creation of art to the written work and MacNeal does it perfectly.   

As the book goes on, it gets darker and scarier and the pace picks up.   Silas’ obsession with Iris consumes him.  He’s an odd one from the beginning, but as the book progresses, he becomes positively mad.  This one is not for the faint of heart.  

My thanks to netgalley and Atria Books for an advance copy of this book
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I absolutely loved the writing and the unique characters in this historical fiction/thriller. The strange and often grotesque details and dark story reminded me a lot of Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Highly recommended!
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This book was so much more than I expected it to be. Literally, this was historical suspense. A Victorian stalker novel! 

While not perfect, it hit on enough cylinders to earn it the full five stars, if only because I didn't want to put it down. 

I loved the characters and the overall vibe is creepy with a bit of humor thrown in. 

It contains what may be my favorite anachronism to date. The stalker is waiting to kidnap a dog, watching a housemaid walk the dog. He observes the dog defecating in the street and is annoyed the housemaid doesn't clean up after it. Meanwhile, in London at this time period, everyone from horses to street urchins use the streets as toilets and waste is routinely dumped into the streets. Worrying about cleaning up after your dog is a fairly recent concern. 

Btw, trigger warnings for animal abuse: the bad guy is a deranged taxidermist. Enough said.

Still, for a debut novel, I loved it. Only Victorian England would display stuffed "oddities" with the same reverance as the Pre-Raphaelite painters in an amazing historical structure they intended to dismantle a year later. 

I can't wait to see what this author does next. 

Actual Rating: 5 stars
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley
Current ebook price: $12.99
Opinion of Price: I'm considering buying a hard copy of this one. The UK cover is beautiful but I understand why the U.S. edition toned down the "Britishness" in their edition. The U.S. cover makes it look like a more conventional, modern thriller, which this is not.
My Cost: $0.00
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I really wanted to enjoy this book, but it never really held my attention. The two sisters who worked in the doll factory were probably typical of the Victorian lifestyle, but the plot was so slow paced and rather boring. The backstory about the great upcoming exhibition was interesting, but it was not enough to make the book a great read.
I do thank the publishers for sending me an ARC through Netgalley, for my honest opinion.
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3.5/5 This is an intriguing story of a man who is obsessed with a girl who is obsessed with an ideal. From the very beginning, I thought, I hope the bad man doesn't stay the bad man and the good man doesn't stay the good man. If so, how dull. For me, I really wanted this book to stretch more, to stray from the easy path. But it seldom did so. Overall, an interesting gothic tale and while certainly not a bad one, it's not as unpredictable as I would have liked.
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In Victorian London live twins - Iris and Rose. They work in a doll factory. Rose sews the clothes for the dolls, Iris paints them. Often the dolls are created to imitate a child, living or dead. Rose was struck by smallpox which renders her disfigured. Iris’s collarbone was broken during childbirth which rendered her disfigured as well. 

Also in London are a group of artists known as the PRB. They paint in a tradition of bright lifelike colors. Louis Frost is taken with Iris and asks her to be his model in a new painting. Iris agrees to be Louis’s model with the promise that Louis will teach her how to paint. She leaves the Doll Factory and her disfigured sister behind, and begins this new life of art. During this same time, a taxidermist named Silas Reed develops an unhealthy obsession with Iris.  The Great Exhibition is about to begin and Silas wants Iris to be his companion. Perhaps he can woo her with his entry into the Great Exhibition. But Louis got there first.

I had no idea when reading this book that it was actually based on fact. The PRB, or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters in the mid-1800s who pushed back against the popular painting techniques of the day. Back to prior to Raphael’s paintings. While Louis Frost and the Whittle twins are fictitious, the PRB did exist. As did the Great Exhibition and the Academy. 

Regardless, this is a beautifully written story of obsession and love and pain and sisterhood. MacNeal has made Iris the tougher of the two twins. This is a woman with spunk, in a time when women were expected to be prim and proper. Poor Rose with her scarred face is more of the mouse. Louis is wild and free and funny and sweet. Silas is dark and slimy. The story tells us not only of these people, but also of a time when life was not so easy for most. There is suspense and terror in this book. It is not all paintings and beauty. MacNeal gives us a dark and twisty tale to follow.
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Unfortunately, this book was not for me. It was very hard for me to get into and I wasn’t a fan of the writing. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for sending me an early reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.
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This is a debut novel by author Elizabeth Macneal. I really enjoyed the Victorian Gothic aspect of this novel. Macneal does an amazing job capturing the atmosphere of Victorian London. This book was both beautiful and extremely dark at the same time. 

The characters are well written and diverse. The plot, however, moves at a crawling pace. I had a difficult time getting in to it. I actually had to force myself to even continue to read. It wasn't until the last quarter of the novel did my interest even get peaked, and then I was left in a whirlwind ending and wishing I had been given more. 

If you are a fan of art, thrillers, Gothic or Victorian era novels then give this a read.  Though it was a 3 star read for me, I have a feeling I am the minority and that there are a ton of readers who will love this! 

I do look forward to reading more books from Elizabeth Macneal, as her writing is marvelous and the way she transports readers to the setting is magical. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for allowing me an advanced copy to read and give my honest review. 

Happy Reading!
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At the beginning of the book, we meet Iris and her twin sister Rose who are working for a doll maker. They are miserable and although they are paid, it doesn’t seem much more than a step above slave labor. Rose was always the pretty one, while Iris had a deformed collarbone due to an injury at birth. By the time they are reisigned to their sad life at the doll store, however, Rose has lost her beauty to small pox and both sisters live a sad existence.
The catalyst in this story is a dirty little street rat named Albie. He totally reminded me of that scrappy little kid in Les Miserables. You know the one-“you better run for cover when the pup grows up.” He’s street smart and does what he needs to do to survive. He delivers doll dresses to the sisters. He has another “client”, Silas, who likes to get dead animals. So the poor little boy always smells like death and decay carrying around dead rodents. But it’s Albie who connects all the characters and leads to Iris starting to rise about her position in life. 
When Iris meets Louis, he seems too good to be true. He admires her beauty and convinces her to be his model and apprentice. With Louis, Iris’s world cracks wide open and she starts to live a life she loves. 
I won’t go into details on the rest of the story because I don’t want to ruin anything. This story definitely feels a bit dark, gothic, and the tone harkens to Dicken’s books or Madame Bovary. And describing it here, it really does sound like an amazing book. But for whatever reason, it was hard for me to get into it. I just don’t think the genre is my cup of tea. 
I would definitely recommend this to fans of historical fiction, however. I applaud Elizabeth MacNeal for penning such a unique book in this age of thrillers that often times blend together because their plots can be so similar. 
Special thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for an e-galley in exchange for my honest review.
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Sadly this book was not for me. Too creepy and did not like the style of writing. This is my opinion only so hope everyone else enjoys. Thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for my honest review.
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