The Doll Factory

A Novel

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About The Book

A New York Times Editor’s Choice

In this “sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art, and obsession” (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train) and #1 international bestseller, a beautiful young woman aspires to be an artist, while a man’s dark obsession may destroy her world forever.

Obsession is an art.

In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment. But for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

“A lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) that is “a perfect blend of froth and substance” (The Washington Post), The Doll Factory will haunt you long after you finish it and is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and Fingersmith.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Doll Factory includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park , and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment, but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees, on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has thought of only one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. When we think about obsession in the novel, Silas is most likely the first character who comes to mind. Yet many of the characters have something that drives them and that they obsess over. Think about who is obsessed with what. What do these obsessions have in common? Where lies the divide between healthy and harmful obsession?

2. Charles Dickens, a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, is mentioned by characters early on in the novel. What themes does THE DOLL FACTORY share with novels written by Dickens? What writing techniques does Elizabeth Macneal employ that are similar to those of Dickens?

3. What are the different societal constraints our main characters work against to achieve their goals? Do any of these limits still exist in our era? Which ones seem to have stayed in Victorian times?

4. Of all the imaginary pieces of art described in the book, which one would you most like to see? What about it interests you?

5. Why does Iris feel such affection for Albie? Do you feel the same way about him?

6. How are mastery and control expressed in the novel? How do these concepts differ from each other, and which characters exhibit them?

7. How does the slow revelation of Silas’s true relationship to Flick affect the novel? At what point did you realize how dangerous Silas was? What details does Elizabeth Macneal give us early on to indicate that all is not what it seems with Silas?

8. While the painting of Guigemar’s queen is the most prominent example, many of the paintings described mirror the characters’ experiences. Google a few of the paintings and see how they are reflected in the characters’ arcs.

9. Do you sympathize with Rose? Does your opinion of her change throughout the novel?

10. Courtly love is a medieval literary tradition in which a knight proved his love for a noble woman through a series of tests, and the knight and his intended lady are presented as idealized figures. It has been an influence upon many artistic movements and was a key interest of the Pre-Raphaelites. Reread page 156, where Louis explains why he is beginning to tire of it. In what ways does courtly love play out within the novel? Who upholds its ideals and who counters them? How do you see the ideals of courtly love reflected in discussions of relationships and gender in our own times?

11. Women are consistently “captured” in the novel, whether literally or figuratively (Guigemar’s queen, Iris’s likeness in the painting, Flick and Iris by Silas, Rose by Mrs. Salter, even Guinevere the wombat). Discuss the various constraints put upon women in the novel and how they do or do not break free.

12. Considering the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s dedication to truth (“taking truth to nature”—or representing the world accurately—was one of their tenets), what do you think of Louis’s omission about his wife and child? Do you think Iris’s reaction was fair?

13. What did you make of Albie’s death? What were the narrative advantages of this?

14. With its emphasis on freedom, medieval culture, and courtly love, and the name itself, is there a place for women in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? To counter, consider how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also gave space to women, both in the novel and historically, to become artists and not just muses.

15. What do you make of the review of Iris’s painting at the end of the novel? What does it imply about the lives of Iris, Louis, and Rose? Why do you think Iris included Albie in it? How does it tie in with the themes of the novel, particularly of objects and symbolism?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Research the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its members. Choose one of their paintings described in THE DOLL FACTORY and give a report to your book group. Be sure to include its size, the materials used, any historical or mythological allusions in the work, qualities that make it pre-Raphaelite, and contemporary reactions to the artwork. Don’t forget to bring a photo to show everyone!

2. Iris’s story can be compared to the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with one of his creations. Many writers have used this Greek myth in their work. One of the most famous works is George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Have your book group read it, or watch the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. Though THE DOLL FACTORY is set a few decades before Shaw wrote his play, there are many similarities in its exploration of class mobility and gender roles. Discuss how Iris is similar to Eliza Doolittle. How are Louis and Silas similar to Henry Higgins? In what ways do they differ? What other themes do you think both Shaw and Macneal explore?

3. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was not made up only of visual artists, but also writers, and especially poets. Pick a Pre-Raphaelite poet, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti or his sister, Christina Rossetti, and analyze its language, themes, and symbols. As with the paintings you researched, what qualities make the poem pre-Raphaelite? Is there anything in it that reminds you of THE DOLL FACTORY?

About The Author

Born in Scotland, Elizabeth Macneal is a potter based in London, where she works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University and completed the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 2017. In 2018,  she won the Caledonia Novel Award for her debut novel, The Doll Factory.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (July 7, 2020)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982106775

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Raves and Reviews

“When a book refuses to shy away from squalor and brutality while venerating the passionate and beautiful, it is always a memorable experience—The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber; The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Joining this list of haunting novels is Elizabeth Macneal's unapologetically lush debut, THE DOLL FACTORY... There is hardly an aspect of Victorian London that [Macneal] has not mastered.”

– The New York Times Book Review

“I’ve missed subway stops to finish a book, but this is the first time I almost missed a plane . . . What more could one want from a Victorian thriller? But Macneal delivers even more . . . It’s a perfect blend of froth and substance, a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson.”

– The Washington Post

"A sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art and obsession."

– Paula Hawkins, internationally bestselling author of The Girl on the Train

"A stunningly confident first novel with a real sense of period and place . . . thoroughly engrossing."

– Ian Rankin, New York Times bestselling author of RATHER BE THE DEVIL

"Talented debut novelist Macneal drops readers right into a Victorian London that’s home to stinking squalor and chaos, but also significant beauty and possibility. Midway through, readers won’t know if they're holding a romance, tragedy, or murder mystery, but won’t pause long enough to wonder about it as Iris rails against the limitations of her gender and social status, and Silas’ creepiness comes into sharp focus…This terrifically exciting, chiaroscuro novel became an instant bestseller in England, with TV rights already sold, and will jolt, thrill, and bewitch U.S. readers, too."

– Booklist (starred review)

"A stunning novel that twines together power, art, and obsession. At every turn expectations are confounded - it’s a historical novel and yet feels incredibly relevant and timely. I loved its warmth, its wry humour, and the way each small thread leads into an unbearably tense and chilling denouement that had me totally gripped."

– Sophie Mackintosh, Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Water Cure

"An astonishingly good debut. The Doll Factory reminded me of The Crimson Petal and the White, Fingersmith and Vanity Fair but had a richness of tone that was uniquely its own. Macneal writes with utter mastery, creating a lushly intricate world peopled by living, breathing characters you can’t help but fall in love with and a plot that rattles like a speeding carriage to its thrilling conclusion. I couldn’t put it down. You won’t be able to either."

– Elizabeth Day, award-winning author of THE PARTY

"I lovedTHE DOLL FACTORY from the very first page and couldn’t do anything else until I’d read right to the end. An exquisite novel of obsession, delusion, resilience and love, Elizabeth Macneal really is a breathtaking new talent."
 

– AJ Pearce, internationally bestselling author of DEAR MRS. BIRD

"Engrossing and atmospheric. Fascinating real historical background (the Pre-Raphaelites) and super invented characters. I can practically see the TV version!"

– Adele Geras, award-winning author of THE BALLET CLASS

"With strong echoes of John Fowles' The CollectorThe Doll Factory is at once a vivid depiction of a morally dubious world, and a page-turning psychological thriller, with a truly compelling villain."

– Essie Fox, critically-acclaimed author of The Somnambulist

"A gripping, artfully written historical novel with a highly contemporary sensibility. The setting - 19th century London full of pomp, grime and menace - plays just one part in an immersive and intellectually satisfying narrative that interrogates gender politics, classism, relationships, artistic obsession and erotomania with a painterly eye and gleefully dark heart. Part love story, part gothic novel and leading up to a truly breathless conclusion, this book is destined to be one of the biggest titles of 2019, deservedly so."

– Sharlene Teo, award-winning author of Ponti

"Fantastic - vivid, poignant, colourful, and elegantly horrifying."

– Bridget Collins, internationally bestselling author of THE BINDING

"This brilliant literary thriller gripped me from the opening page and didn’t relinquish its hold until I’d read the final sentence. The Doll Factory conjures 1850s London in all its grime and glory, possibility and restriction in absorbing, immersive detail. Elizabeth Macneal has created that rare thing: a beautifully researched historical novel with a plot to stop your heart. If this is her first book, I can barely wait to see what she writes next."
 

– Hannah Kent, award-winning author of BURIAL RITES and THE GOOD PEOPLE

"THE DOLL FACTORY is brilliant, with a refreshingly original quality, beautifully orchestrated narrative, great characters and some fascinating background detail."

– Andrew Taylor, No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author of THE ASHES OF LONDON and THE AMERICAN BOY

"THE DOLL FACTORY is one of the best books I’ve read in ages – heartbreaking and evocative. Elizabeth Macneal draws a vivid picture of life in 1850s London, exploring the world of the pre-Raphaelites and examining the position of women through her unforgettable heroine. At the same time, Elizabeth creates a perfectly structured and page-turning story of love and passion; crime and obsession. A wonderful and intense novel. I loved it."

– Jenny Quintana, author of THE MISSING GIRL

"A remarkably assured and beautifully written debut, filled with sinister delights and intriguing themes of imprisonment and objectification. A truly captivating read."

– E C Fremantle, author of THE POISON BED

"A darkly beautiful exploration of the razor’s edge between creation and destruction."

– BookPage, "8 New Voices To Discover"

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