In London, November 1850, Silas Reed likes to talk to his creatures, making up histories that have landed them on his slab. Brought to him by a local guttersnipe, 10-year-old Albie, Silas's specimens are designed to stand the test of time--though secretly he longs for something truly exceptional to complete his grand design. Emerging onto Regent Street, Albie darts to the threshold of Mrs. Salter's Doll Emporium, where he meets his friend Rose and her sister, Iris, who calls him "a filthy little urchin."
Given Iris's twisted collarbone and Rose's smallpox scars, it's not surprising they've hidden themselves away amid the powdered paints and fox-hair brushes of Mrs. Salter's salon, which mesmerized Iris at first. Spending their days decorating the dolls' feet, hands and faces, enduring the sickly smell of confectionary in the airless room, the sisters come to view the business as "more like a crypt than a shop." In recent years, Iris has come to accept her hated twisted collarbone as a part of herself that she would not change.
Scarred Rose will never find a match, so the best Iris can hope is to marry adequately and support her sister. They are twins bound together, yet Rosie's illness seems both "to tighten and unravel that knot." Framed by London's Great Exhibition (how can Silas's small shop ever compare to one of the largest museums ever built?), Macneal conveys Iris's need to escape, though for a woman of her time she seems never to be free, destined to eke out this pitiful life and suffer the slaps and insults of Mrs. Salter.
Life changes when Iris meets dark, billowy-haired artist Louis Frost. Part of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Louis asks Iris to model for him; she, in turn, asks him to teach her to paint. Other models may comport themselves like prostitutes, but Iris is different: "she must grip tight the jewel of her respectability." At the Royal Academy, Iris searches for some way that the public can see her paintings while Louis's friends want her to join them in the Brotherhood, though she knows that this is a group only for men.
There are darker forces afoot in The Doll Factory. Burying his desire for Iris, Silas understands that the Brotherhood view him as a contemptible and talentless "good for nothing". Rose is left behind at the Doll Emporium, where anger eats away at her as well as the bitterness of losing her gentleman and her loss of beauty and prospects. Every day, Iris's face shines back at her in the mirror of "who Rose once was or could have been." Like Silas, Rose is stuck in a world of resentment, her fate controlled by Iris's anger: "you just want to trap me here in this miserable life." From Regent's Park to Highgate Cemetery, Iris slowly begins to see the world as a canvas.
Half-crazed Silas is obsessed with Iris. He tries to picture his Lepidoptera window and his "puppies' skeleton" next to their stuffed pelt on display at the Great Exhibition. From Soho to the Dolphin club, a repulsive "cradle of vice," McNeal exposes the intertwined lives of Silas, Iris, Louis, Rose and poor single-toothed Albie, who lives by his wits and wants to protect kind-hearted Iris. Silas's love for Iris is madness; she has made it quite clear that she does not love him. For now, Silas waits, silent and hidden, until Iris is ready to come to him. The novel culminates in a violent reckoning that involves Silas's last chance to experiment with chloroform, a new type of sedative that has both benefits and dangers. Psychologically disturbed and emotionally tormented, perfidious Silas is finally ready to become the human collector. Iris ends up scarred by her passionate love for Louis, a love that can no longer provide certainty.
McNeal fully understands and embodies her Victorian setting. From the very first chapter, I was engrossed in McNeal's gothic saga and portrayal of her feisty heroine, who resolutely seizes her independence from The Doll Factory and becomes the artist she once dreamed of.