S. Montana Katz’s mid-80s New York art scene is rendered in a fast-paced blur of POV shifting complexity, populated with the intricacies of women—their lives, relationships, desires, dreams. She creates her New York with a precise eye for detail, laying out its crowded streets, traffic, and people in a style that edges towards claustrophobic in a way to those familiar with the bustle of a city. Living Dolls is at once a romance novel, a crime drama, and a tragedy, twining together its characters stories with an insidious string of violence and activism carried out among the New York streets.
The pace of Katz’s novel is fast, perhaps sometimes too much so, sweeping from character to character, scene to scene before I could find my footing. A sprawling art show pans from its curator to an aerial view, into the overheard squabbling of elderly socialites, into their nighttime walk to their car, all of it held together by Katz’s detailed rendering of fashion, social edifice, and scenery. It’s overwhelming, but purposefully so. We might start a chapter with a character on the phone, only to have that phone passed to another character, whom we stay with for the rest of the chapter. Similarly, Katz’s building of scene evokes the intricacies of old architecture and busy city streets, pausing first at an older woman and her “oversized black silk T-shirt, a long, irregular heavy gold chain, dungarees and Birkenstocks. She has a short, angular coif on her curly salt-and-pepper hair,” only to end up watching “a young couple…arguing in the doorway alongside a large, explosive painting done in blinding tropical fruit colors.” This novel is carefully articulated around camera movements Katz has meticulously planned down to the minute detail, and once I got a feel for her flow, I settled into her characters and her rendering of the truths so many women are familiar with today. The indignities and furies of cultural misogyny, and the many ways women live in, adapt to, and rail against it are written with a blunt, tender understanding for the abiding nature of oppression.
While the string of murders potentially linked to the titular feminist activists The Living Dolls is the backbone of the piece, the real heart and soul exists in the way Katz allows her women to live in their many pluralities. Maria is fights for her sense of self among a highly reputable law firm, dreaming of finding herself, or else fleeing to an uncharted island—with or without her family. Roberta is in love with a married man, certain that Maria knows herself better than anyone else. Jackie is a stay-at-home nanny and college student, taking care of Maria’s family and trying to build a life for herself. The girls of The Living Dolls fight for women’s rights and realities amidst it all. Here, in these streets, there are women, at odds with each other’s views, defining their own stakes in the world they inhabit, defining in each turn: femininity, social mobility, power, life. That is the thread that drew me through each page of Living Dolls and Other Women, a persistent, powerful, messy, wonderful view of women in 1980s New York, searching for what it means to be truly themselves.
Publisher: Guernica World Editions
Publication date: July 1, 2021
Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane