I honestly could not remember if I had read this book in my childhood, but going through it last night, a lot of it felt familiar; I even knew who the killer was as soon as he was mentioned, so I guess I have read it before. I think it is an amazing book. I read the entire thing in one sitting. I just could not put it down.
I have been wanting to read more books by female authors, and this one has ghosts, creepy dolls that move, and a murder mystery. Check, check, check, check. Amazon could not take my money quickly enough. I recommend this book for fans of R. L. Stine and Mary Downing Hahn, two authors I’ve covered here before. Let’s jump in.
Plot Synopsis (Spoiler-Free)
Amy goes to stay a few weeks with her aunt, Clare, at the big house her grandparents used to live. In the attic is an immaculate dollhouse–a replication of the house she resides. In it, the dolls move, playing out a double murder that occurred in the house years ago.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect book, but this book is as close as one could get for me. I couldn’t find a thing wrong, and the book did so much right.
1. Characters – Amy is a believable protagonist who is easy to care about. She has realistic adolescent concerns and flaws: the overbearing responsibility of a challenged sister, making and keeping friends, and guilt about putting her own wants and needs over her family’s. She so desperately wants to do the right thing by her sister, Louann, but she doesn’t know how to do it without sacrificing her own happiness.
Amy meets her challenges head on. She speaks about her thoughts and feelings, and she even admits when she feels she is wrong, even when she does not know exactly what is right. She is proactive. Although she starts the book by running from her problems, I can respect that she needed space and went out and got it. When she discovers that her aunt is hurt by her questions about the dollhouse and her grandparents’ murders, she decides to go to the library and find the answers herself. Regarding the dollhouse, she decides not to talk about it, allowing her aunt to believe she is moving the dolls and lying about it just to spare her feelings. Finally, she faces her fears and goes up to the attic during a storm to watch the dollhouse and see what it wants to tell her. It’s incredibly hard not to like Amy.
Clare, Amy’s aunt, is also a really well-developed character. She is an aunt many of us wish we could have or have had growing up: she is fun, she is comforting, and she distracts herself from problems by baking cookies and making fudge. Clare is not without her faults, however. Clare lets her anger get the best of her at a couple different points when she is triggered by Amy or when she believes Amy is lying. This flaw makes her realistic and believable. She acknowledges her poor reactions and apologizes to Amy each time, trying to understand her niece.
Furthermore, Clare is a victim of trauma. Her grandparents and guardians were murdered when she was 18, and she believes her fiance committed the murders because her grandparents disapproved of her relationship with them. For this, she feels personally responsible for their murders, and she is wrecked by it. She escapes to Chicago and tries to distract herself with a job and a new life, but she has headaches and moments where her emotions are too much for her, and she keeps getting fired from her jobs. I have experience with trauma and dealing with trauma, and Clare’s experiences are spot on for someone plagued by the past. I’m not psychologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Clare has PTSD. She doesn’t like to think or talk about her grandparents’ murder, but she keeps getting triggered and keeps getting brought back to that time. Clare as a character is really well done.
Amy’s parents, Louann, and Amy’s friend, Ellen, are all thoughtfully developed as well. They each have flaws that make them who they are, and all the characters except for Amy’s dad, who has a very small role in the novel, grow as people by acknowledging their faults and trying to make better decisions.
All of the characters here are great examples of multidimensional, round characters for adolescents learning about characterization.
2. Pacing – I never felt bored while reading this book. Wright does a good job of having everything that happens advance the plot or develop the characters in some way without giving away too much. The plot’s climax when Amy and Clare find out what the dollhouse wants and who killed Clare’s grandparents is so rewarding because of the buildup. A good ghost story crawls to a climax, making the reader guess, but not truly know, what happened until that big moment comes.
I like that a storm came in on the night Amy faces her fears and goes to watch the murders in the dollhouse. It’s a huge build up of tension, and I think it lets the reader know to expect something big. It’s like, everything is about to come crashing down, and it does. Clare breathes a sigh of relief as the tension is released, and I think the reader feels that.
Wright does a great job of keeping the characters and reader in the present while allowing the reader to experience the past as well. Through the dolls’ actions, the immaculate doll house, and through Clare’s dialogue where she talks about her life with her grandparents, I feel like I have a good understanding of who they were. I was also able to comprehend the weight of Clare’s burden and guilt over their deaths.
3. Messages – A ghost story is supposed to scare, and this one does, but this one does so much more. It has the reader reflect about family, responsibility, burden, and guilt. I like how it touches on the effects of trauma as well. I became codependent after my own trauma, and in therapy, I learned the same lessons that Amy learns in this book: saying no is okay, taking care of yourself is okay, and expressing how you feel is okay.
She also learns that family can be a burden, but that love is a gift. Louann has learning disabilities, and that kind of challenge can absolutely affect a family. It does affect Amy’s family, and they aren’t perfect in how they deal with it. I personally love that this family is not perfect. I love that they learn and grow together.
None. I’m serious.
The new cover above is alright, I guess, but it doesn’t stand out to me, and I don’t know if I’d pick this book up with that cover as a kid. It’s just a house with lights. Honestly, the only thing that drew me in to check out the book was the text “Forward by R. L. Stine” at the top. It’s why I read the plot summary.
The original cover is definitely a product of its time, but I love it. Look at those creepy dolls. Look at Amy’s genuine look of surprise and horror.
The spiderwebs are a bit much, but meh. I also wish the grandmother were the central doll instead of the grandfather and little girl, but maybe the publisher wanted to pull in some male readers.
The Dollhouse Murders is an expertly-paced scary story with realistic and likeable characters and themes of love, sacrifice, burden and guilt. It not only engages and scares the reader, but leaves the reader thinking about the book long after the book is put down. It was a perfect read for me. I have no critiques for once.
I will definitely read more books by Betty Ren Wright.