In Elizabeth Macneal’s debut sensation, an aspiring artist traverses the fine line between destruction and creation.
In 1851 London, Iris works long hours in a doll-making studio. Trapped into an apprenticeship beside Rose, her unhappy twin sister, Iris plots to build a new life in which she is free to paint while Rose runs her own shop. Iris also hopes to gain a position stable enough to help the toothless street urchin Albie, who sews doll clothes for the studio and becomes like a little brother to her. When up-and-coming artist Louis offers to give Iris paintings lessons—in exchange for her modeling for a painting he wants to enter into the Great Exhibition—she feels that she’s one step closer to making her plan succeed. But little does Iris know, a lonely taxidermist named Silas has his own designs for her.
Chapters interweave like the finest lace, as Iris, Rose, Albie, Louis and Silas each take a turn in the spotlight. They are trapped in an intricate web of desire and obsession, the passions that can make or break art. Iris risks stability in her desperation for artistic freedom, Rose’s chronic regrets pull her away from Iris, and Albie wants a new set of teeth so badly he almost betrays his benefactress. While Louis rebels against the academic standards of the time, depicting fleeting moments in his pre-Raphaelite paintings, Silas is dead-set on preserving his specimens for all time. Does art break down or build up ideals? Or both?
London’s splendor as well as its squalor come alive in visceral detail, and Macneal’s attention to artists’ processes spans the extremes from ecstatic joy to macabre revenge and everything in between. The Doll Factory isn’t just inspired by the Victorian era; it takes Thackeray’s social satire and Rodin’s natural forms and molds them into a stunning portrait of a modern heroine.