House of Dolls, by Francesca Lia Block

House of Dolls, by Francesca Lia Block, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (2010 HarperCollins, middle grade, 61 pages).

In her apartment in the city, Madison Blackberry has a dolls' house, a lovely one, full of beauteous small things made and collected by Madison's grandmother. And Madison's grandmother still loves it much more than Madison does--lavishing more attention on the dolls, it seems, then she does on Madison. Madison's parents are even more inattentive.

Bored and resentful, Madison turns on the dolls. But the dolls that live in her doll house are not simple toys. They have feelings--they love, and think, and are people in their own right. Wildlower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene are the three girl dolls, Guy and B. Friend, a stuffed bear, are the boyfriends of the first two. When Madison, like an angry god, takes Guy, and B. Friend from home, the lives of the dolls are cruelly shattered by the pain of war, and the agony of loss. Even crueler is the fate Madison visits on Miss Selene...

All comes right in the end, although too handily for my taste--suddenly her grandmother shows Madison affection, so she is able to reciprocate and restore the lives of her dolls to their former happy stasis....and then, bang, her parents are being affectionate to her too, and "the war is over."

House of Dolls is told partly from the point of view of the dolls, partly from Madison's point of view, in distinct segments. This change in perspective made the story seem a little distant--the lives of the dolls became, perforce, less real when Madison was the story's focus (even though the author still inserts their perspective, and specifically asks the reader to identify them). And the distance I felt from the story was reinforced by the somewhat self-conscious authorial voice, and the underlined Points.

"The combination of boredom and jealousy is a dangerous thing. Especially when the person feeling these things is so many times larger than you are." (page 23)

It's not un-moving, I loved the descriptions of the doll house, and the illustrations added greatly to the charm, and I had no quarrel with the writing qua writing....but somehow it didn't quite work for me. It felt a like an adult fable, and not so much like a book for children.

Added bonus feature: As far as I know, this is the first book about sentient dolls to feature an inter-racial couple--Guy, the soldier doll who is Wildflower's boyfriend, is a doll of color (a point that is underlined with a slightly heavy hand):

"Wildflower was a celluloid doll with long black braids of real hair, pale skin, and big brown eyes with painted on eyelashes. Guy was a dark-skinned plastic doll in army fatigues. It did not matter that they looked nothing alike. The first time Madison Blackberry lay them down next to each other in the white lace canopy bed and their arms brushed, Wildflower and Guy knew they never wanted to be separated." (pp 6-7)

And Barbara McClintock is faithful to this description in her illustrations.


  1. Despite her skill, I generally hate anything written by Francesca Lia Block - mainly because we were force-fed her in grad school, but also because of that sort of intrusive authorial voice, and this sort of ...Utopian "and they all lived happily" sort of vibe that gets pulled before the true depth of the conflict can be felt. Emotions are seen through a glass darkly, as it were, or pink-smoked glass, at the least, and all the edges and bad things are rounded out. I think of it as akin to being on psychotropic drugs.

    And yet, she's an excellent writer...

  2. I'm glad you reviewed this book, because now I don't have to! Seriously, though, you articulate a lot of what bothered me about House of Dolls. I wanted to like it for Barbara McClintock's sake, but...no.

  3. I just finished reading an older dollhouse themed book called The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O'Connell that I loved. The best feature of the book -- three brothers own the dollhouse and play with the dolls (in a distinctly boy fashion). I read it aloud to my kids and they enjoyed listening to the slightly suspenseful story that is perfect for children.

  4. This was the first book of Block's I've ever read--I feel that it is a gap in my reading, but there are so many books,and so little time...

    The Dollhouse Capers sounds like a fun one, though!

  5. Ha. I have this scheduled for review this weekend. I agree with what you said, Charlotte. Doesn't quite work.

    Tanita, that's a wonderful summary of Block's style: pink-smoked glass and psychotropic drugs. Maybe it's magical realism of a very Southern California kind... :)

  6. Love the cover illustration! I think it would have drawn me to explore the book! :)


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