Published: 7 June 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Sometimes life gives you cotton stockings. Sometimes it gives you a Chanel gown…
Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but her life has been fractured by the Great War. Memories of the soldier she loved, of secret shame and profound loss, by turns pull her back and spur her on to make a better life.
When she finds employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly takes a step closer to the glittering lives of the Bright Young Things who thrive on champagne, jazz and rebellion. Right now, she must exist on the fringes of power, wealth and glamor—she must remain invisible and unimportant.
But her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to a struggling songwriter’s advertisement for a ‘muse’ and finds herself thrust into London’s exhilarating theatre scene and into the lives of celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry. Loretta and Perry may have the life Dolly aspires to, but they too are searching for something.
Now, at the precipice of the life she has and the one she longs for, the girl from The Savoy must make difficult choices: between two men; between two classes, between everything she knows and everything she dreams of. A brighter future is tantalizingly close—but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?
Determined to have a career as a dancer, Dolly Lane gets a job as a maid at the Savoy where she is hoping a top producer will notice her and offer her an audition, but things are happening a little too slowly for Dolly so she responds to an advert looking for a muse. However, Dolly’s first meeting with Perry Clements, a composer, gets off to a bad start when he flees the tearoom while she is visiting the ladies room. When Perry’s sister, Loretta May, discovers what he’s done, she is appalled by his behaviour and decides she’s going to make it up to Dolly by grooming her to become the next big star of the stage.
Loretta May has been England’s most celebrated theatre star for a number of years but a diagnosis of terminal cancer means time is running out for her. Choosing to keep her illness a secret from those closest to her, Loretta is determined to keep working for as long as she can while encouraging her brother to find his purpose in life. Although Perry seems to be attracted to Dolly, Loretta is convinced he is still madly in love with her best friend, Bea, but she can’t argue with the fact Dolly is inspiring Perry to write some great music. Mentally and physically scarred by his experiences during the First World War, Perry has a lot of healing to do before he can get on with his life and Dolly’s friendship proves to be invaluable.
Although The Girl From The Savoy is full of intriguing ideas, it ultimately suffers from a lack of direction as Gaynor is trying to juggle too many stories at once which left me feeling unsatisfied. The opening chapters describe Dolly’s life as a new chambermaid in the Savoy, one of London’s most prestigious hotels, and the dazzling array of entertainers who walk through the door on a daily basis offer a wealth of material to fill an entire book alone. The hotel is often described as being a living entity with its own rhythm but we never really get a chance to feel it as Dolly is constantly looking outward. Dolly’s success isn’t born from her experiences in the Savoy but more from her association with Perry and Loretta, and I think it’s a real shame the history of “London’s most famous hotel” wasn’t explored more.
Dolly is an interesting character and I admired her determination to make a better life for herself but her dream of being a dancer just never rang true to me. Although we are told Dolly has been to several auditions, we don’t get to see her actually attend one until much later and she never seems to practice other than at the weekly tea dances she attends with a friend. Yet, Dolly is convinced she is good enough to be part of a chorus line and is just waiting for the right opportunity. When Dolly is taken under Loretta’s wing, we are given no sense of whether Dolly has genuine talent or not as Loretta seems more focused on teaching Dolly how to stand out from the crowd. Apart from a few dress fittings, we aren’t privy to Loretta’s actual lessons, yet within a few months, Dolly is ready to audition for a part in the chorus line and from there she rises rapidly to leading lady status.
The story’s narrative is shared by Dolly and Loretta, and one other person who will be revealed later, but I never felt I got to know Loretta very well despite the tragic revelations from her past. Loretta is already a well-established actress by the time we meet her and she appears to have been an overnight sensation, while also taking time out to nurse the wounded during the war. Loretta, the daughter of a peer, defied her parents to become an actress but it seems to have caused her no real hardship as she has gone on to achieve great success. Yet, Loretta will then casually drop a hint about having used morphine in the past to blunt her emotional pain, however it is never fully explored! Since she knows her time is short, Loretta wants to leave a legacy behind in the shape of Dolly who she hopes to teach everything she knows about being an actress. It’s just a shame we aren’t privy to those lessons.
The third narrator I mentioned is Teddy, the man Dolly hoped to marry, who returns from the war suffering from shell shock. Although Dolly initially stays by his side at the hospital, she slowly comes to the realisation Teddy may never remember her and their hopes for a happy future have been stolen from them. Teddy had always urged Dolly to follow her dreams, so she reluctantly decides to leave him behind but the guilt of abandoning him never quite leaves her. While I appreciate Gaynor was trying to show how the war affected all their lives, Teddy’s narrative never seems to quite fit in with the story and I’m afraid I found myself skipping his chapters.
I’ve read all of Hazel Gaynor’s books to date, and while they always seem to be about interesting subjects, I’m often left frustrated by how she chooses to execute those ideas. The Girl From The Savoy would’ve been an excellent story if the showbiz stuff had been cut out in favour of showing life at the Savoy and Dolly coming to terms with her past. Yet, it would’ve also been an excellent book if Gaynor had chosen to focus on the relationship between Loretta and Dolly, and we had been given a more realistic portrayal of Dolly’s rise to fame. Trying to incorporate both elements is detrimental to the book as a whole as neither is given the attention it deserves and that is why I feel cheated.