Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
Francesca Lia Block, usually known as a writer for young adults, has been branching out over the last few years. House of Dolls, an offering for younger readers, is a wispy (about 60 pages of scant text) middle-reader-level story centered on the social and romantic life of several dolls in a rich girl’s dollhouse. That girl, Madison Blackberry, acts as a malevolent, capricious god toward the dolls. She never displays any awareness or belief as to their sentience, thus bringing chaos and fear into the dollhouse. It’s kinda like The Velveteen Rabbit on Opposite Day.
The dolls, gifted with names like Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene, mostly endure Blackberry’s cruelty and neglect by dressing up, having tea parties, and pursuing genteel courtships with a boy doll called Guy, as well as a stuffed bear. But their lives are disrupted severely when Blackberry plays her draft card, and sends the men off to “war” (which in real life means she shoves them into a shoebox and stuffs it in a closet, Texas-funeral style). The girl dolls must then endure a lonely life on the homefront while confronting some of their darker dreams.
The story also shows some of Blackberry’s life in a hard-edged Manhattan penthouse. Various family members display a range of poor relationship skills (mirroring the world of the dollhouse), and it isn’t until Blackberry’s grandmother, the original owner of the dolls, sets her and her family straight that young Blackberry can stop taking her emo rage out on the dolls, and improves their living conditions like a good god should.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Madison’s real life parents are barely characters, so their behavior might go over the heads of most readers. Still, they are both absent parents, and sort of unaware of Madison’s issues even when they’re home. It’s only when Grandma sits everyone down for an intervention that her parents wake up and promise to be more involved.
Violence & Death
No one dies in the story, but the idea of death is a threatening one that hangs over several characters. The disappearance of the “men” frightens the dolls, and Madison’s callousness about the event is creepy, even if it serves to prove a point about her troubled life.
One interesting bit of the book is that Madison goes from being the scary Big Bad in the dolls’ lives to being the lonely protagonist in her own life. That’s a big switch, and it might jar some readers, mostly because it happens very fast in the last part of the book.
The whole story reads like a fairy tale, complete with fairy tale princess tropes and the frequent use of “explanation by fiat.” This should surprise no one, because the emo fairy tale is Francesca Lia Block’s signature move. In style, it’s actually too similar to Weetzie Bat. Because House of Dolls is intended for younger readers, the story is slightly less dark and definitely less sexualized than most of her work. But the bare-bones style (in keeping with classic FLB writing) doesn’t allow for a lot of plot or character development, and this is unfortunate because the subjects FLB addresses will be best understood by a slightly older crowd who might appreciate a bit more meat in their plot (say 6th to 8th graders, or even early high schoolers), but the text seems geared toward younger readers. I just can’t picture a reader knocking down something by Gail Carson Levine (also a fairy tale writer for this age group), and then really enjoying House of Dolls. It’s like expecting to be satisfied with a few Skittles for dinner when you’re used to a solid portion of mac’n’cheese.
It’s too bad, because House of Dolls isn’t a terrible story. It just feels like it was shoehorned into a format and marketing niche that it wasn’t originally intended for. The original hardcover list price was around $16 (which yes, I realize almost nobody pays). But for that kind of price, I’d want a full collection of stories, not just one. The book does feature illustrations by Barbara McClintock, which may distract from the sparseness of the plot.
House of Dolls by Francesca Lia Block
Published in 2010 by HarperCollins