Rating: 4 stars
In “The Girl from the Savoy,” Hazel Gaynor introduces the reader to a wonderful, plucky protagonist who dreams of rising from her humble beginnings and becoming someone. Dorothy, called Dolly by everyone, begins her adventure as a chambermaid at the Savoy, a grand and glittering hotel frequented by the rich and famous.
She and the reader see the huge divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” When cleaning the rooms of the world famous actresses, she and the other chambermaids admire their shoes and their clothes. A chance encounter with a struggling composer leads Dolly to take some risks. She answers an advertisement for a “muse” and is befriended by that would-be composer, Perry, and his sister, a famous actress.
At the same time as Dolly is telling her story, the actress, Loretta, is telling hers. Both stories are told in first person narrative, but the chapters are clearly labeled, and the lives of the two women are worlds apart. Loretta is a star at the apex of her career. She and her brother are from a wealthy family by whom their professions are scorned — the truly wealthy don’t have to work.
She relates, “It wasn’t so very long ago that I was a defiant society girl with an unforgettable face and an unrelenting mother; the girl who found her place on the stage despite the disdain her parents expressed toward such an unseemly profession. That girl had fought and rebelled.” Now she’s tired and suffering from an as-yet unnamed condition.
The last person who is a narrator is Teddy. Teddy is the man whom Dolly loved when he went to do his part in the First World War. He plays a huge part in the story, and while the reader may guess who the “nurse” reading Dolly’s letters to him is, the mystery of why she leaves him and whether he recovers is beautifully revealed at the end.
The story is not only the story of two women who, through a strange set of coincidences, become friends. It’s also the story of people who are determined to change their lives — often in spite of the resistance and lack of support of those around them. It’s about the vicissitudes of war and also about post traumatic stress disorder, which existed long before there was an official name for it. It’s also a love story, and while the love story is a truly beautiful part of the plot, it’s not the driving force behind the actions of any of the characters, and that’s refreshingly different from other historical fiction stories.
Most of all, “The Girl from the Savoy” is a satisfying, thoughtful novel that delves into the lives of people living in Great Britain during the 1920s. For “Downton Abbey” followers, the stories of the upstairs workers and the downstairs entitled folks are entertaining and informative. This is a perfect book for a summer read — or an anytime read.