Review: Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal

dollbaby“A big-hearted coming-of-age debut set in civil rights-era New Orleans—a novel of Southern eccentricity and secrets
When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, her mother unceremoniously deposits Ibby with her eccentric grandmother Fannie and throws in her father’s urn for good measure. Fannie’s New Orleans house is like no place Ibby has ever been—and Fannie, who has a tendency to end up in the local asylum—is like no one she has ever met. Fortunately, Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her smart-mouthed daughter, Dollbaby, take it upon themselves to initiate Ibby into the ways of the South, both its grand traditions and its darkest secrets.
For Fannie’s own family history is fraught with tragedy, hidden behind the closed rooms in her ornate Uptown mansion. It will take Ibby’s arrival to begin to unlock the mysteries there. And it will take Queenie and Dollbaby’s hard-won wisdom to show Ibby that family can sometimes be found in the least expected places.
For fans of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help, Dollbaby brings to life the charm and unrest of 1960s New Orleans through the eyes of a young girl learning to understand race for the first time.
By turns uplifting and funny, poignant and full of verve, Dollbaby is a novel readers will take to their hearts.” – Goodreads

Oh, my dear sweet baby Jesus. Here we go again, y’all. Someone has written a book about The South in which there is an African-American housekeeper, and it has once again been compared to The Help by Katherine Stockett, when in fact it is nothing like it. Why? Why do they do this to me? OK. To save myself from going on a major rant, you can simply review a previous, related rant here. Now. On to our regular programming…

Mere days after her father’s death in 1964, 11-year-old Liberty (Ibby) Bell is unceremoniously dumped on the front porch of her estranged grandmother’s ramshackle New Orleans home. Ibby’s mother, Vidrine, needs time “to herself” for a while and does not give a date for her return (as it turns out, she never does). Ibby has heard horrible stories about her grandmother, Fannie, whom she has never met, and is terrified. She is welcomed into her new home by the house “staff”, Dollbaby and Queenie, who are like family to Fannie and who are able to soothe Ibby’s fears and prepare her to meet Fannie for the first time.

Ibby soon discovers that Fannie is a kind and loving soul, if a bit (or a lot) eccentric, who suffers from occasional bouts with mental illness. The two develop a warm relationship as Ibby’s time in New Orleans grows longer and longer. Ibby also grows closer to Queenie and Dollbaby, eventually becoming friends with Dollbaby’s daughter, Birdelia and brother, T-Bone. All of these people slowly become family to Ibby as the years pass by. Most of them are also hiding painful, long-held secrets that are slowly rising to the surface – secrets that threaten to change the way Ibby views Fannie and the rest of her “family” forever.

Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal is a coming-of-age debut novel that reads more like a young adult novel than the true adult historical fiction novel it is meant to be. The narration tends to be disjointed, the dialog is stilted, and character development is just short of simplistic. This is a very disorganized story, with multiple plotlines that fizzle out to nothing before they can actually become points of actual interest. There is a small handful of well-written scenes that hint at what Dollbaby could have been, however, that just makes it all the more frustrating that it did not come to fruition.

Why the title Dollbaby? Beats me, y’all. While the character of Dollbaby has the potential of an excellent lead character, she remains merely a supporting character throughout the novel. I would have enjoyed this novel most back when I was in middle school, and teen readers are who I would recommend it to now. I am somewhat alone in my opinion here, as Dollbaby has received much praise from others – but for me, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal. Read it today.

2.5 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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2 thoughts on “Review: Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal

  1. thinredlines says:

    I just wanted to answer a few of the questions you posed.
    Dollbaby is certainly a coming of age. But its much more than that.
    It’s listed under Historical Fiction because I attempted to chronicle a time… the turbulent 60’s where social change was sweeping the nation. In a city like New Orleans, where nothing had changed for 250 years, where ethnic and racial lines had always blurred, where cultures had married to such an extent that normal social morays were not pertinent, this social change hit like a slap in the face. I attempted to show what the culture Old New Orleans was about in an authentic, not romantic, way. It was by almost all account a different time and place, one that perhaps for those not accustomed to it, seemed a bit odd at the very least. Many of these old customs, as well as the parlance, has now faded away. It can’t be compared to today. Even then, it couldn’t be compared to any other place. New Orleans has a unique character. To this, I tried to stay true.
    In Dollbaby, I also tried to convey a classic story, to prove that you don’t need vampires, or a paranormal or distopian society, to make the story interesting, that you could take the lives of ordinary women and make then extraordinary through their actions. It’s a story of love, loss and redemption, a universal theme that will live on as long as we humans exist.
    Finally, Dollbaby carries as its basic core the classic Southern Gothic theme, where there is an old house full of family secrets locked behind closed doors. When all the secrets are unveiled, and the doors flung open, what you have, in essence, is the story OF Dollbaby, and hence the title.
    Thank you.

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