Book Review: Dollbaby
Published By: Paula Dorman Books
Publication Date: July 3, 2014
Page Count: 352
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction
Dollbaby is one of those novels that sinks its hooks into you and refuses to let go. I love historical fiction, but I was hesitant when the publisher first approached me about reading and reviewing this one. I wanted to read it, but my July review schedule was already packed. I had promised myself that this summer I would be better at balancing what I had to read and what I wanted to read, but I ultimately decided that this one sounded too good to pass up. It was the best decision I could have made. Dollbaby kept me glued to its pages until I had savored every page within twenty four hours. This is the sort of novel you need to make time for sooner rather than later. Laura Lane McNeal's debut novel is one of intrigue, southern hospitality, and the deep bond between females.
As a southerner, I have always found historical fiction rooted in the south to be appealing. While my home region has a vast amount of sorrow lurking in its past, there are also moments of great joy to celebrate. The south is a complicated place with a mixture of ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and customs. Every pocket of the south has its own distinct flavor, but I can't think of a place more diverse than New Orleans. In New Orleans, one doesn't have to look far to find glimpses of the southern aristocracy, race conflict, socioeconomic conflicts, Creole and Cajun influences, and a strong sense of place. All of these things combine to make New Orleans an amazing location - both for fiction and nonfiction. I was lucky enough to visit The Crescent City a few summers ago and now I can't get enough of fiction set in NOLA. One of my favorite places to visit is The Garden District so I was ecstatic to see that Fannie's house lay within those hallowed streets. The city and the house function like characters in many ways. You can't read this one without being fully immersed in the culture and society of New Orleans.
Furthermore, the time period of this novel also makes for some interesting side stories. It's the 1960's and race conflict throughout the South is in full swing. Integration is sweeping through the region and not everyone is happy to see its arrival. The interaction between the white and African American characters in this novel provided a lot of food for thought. I enjoyed see the dynamic between Fannie and Queenie's family play out. The sense of family between these women transcends their races, but they still were not able to fully embrace one another as equals. In addition to race conflicts, the novel also allows the reader to experience the divide between rich and poor as well as protests against US involvement in Vietnam. Also, I enjoyed seeing the different schools of thought within the African American community concerning integration come to life. Queenie is strongly in the school of Booker T. Washington; she believes nobody should rock the boat and being passive is the way to lasting change. Dollbaby on the other hand is a symbol for the thoughts of W.E.B. DuBois - for change to happen you must make it happen. These differing views caused the mother and daughter to butt heads on multiple occasions, but I felt like it added another layer of authenticity to the story.
I was also intrigued because I couldn't quite identify the main character. There were moments when I was convinced that it was Ibby, Fannie's granddaughter who is dropped on Prytania Street by her flighty mother after her father passes away. Ibby's story at first appears to dominate the narrative; she is a young girl growing up in a tumultuous time of change. She also grew up in Washington State so I enjoyed getting her outsider's perspective on all things New Orleans. While Ibby's coming of age is certainly important, I feel the true main character is Dollbaby, Queenie's daughter. I suppose I should have landed on this based on the title, but the novel is written in such a way that Dollbaby's story doesn't truly take the forefront until the closing chapters. I loved that McNeal chose to weave her story in this way. All the characters provide a thread that when tied together make a beautiful quilt detailing the lives of some amazing women.
All in all, I loved this novel and all of the characters. I enjoyed the way McNeal allowed the story to unravel by seeing things through multiple characters eyes and getting flashbacks into Fannie's secretive past. The pacing was pitch perfect, the prose was addictive and moving, and the characters were so lifelike it felt like they were about to step out of the pages and have a glass of sweet tea with me. The sense of place that McNeal conjures will have you longing for a trip to New Orleans. I highly recommend this one to fans of historical fiction and those who have enjoyed novels such as The Help and The Secret Life of Bees. Dollybaby is reminiscent of the previously mentioned titles due to its southern setting, emphasis on coming of age, and the relationship between different races.
One Last Gripe: Vidrine annoyed me. She certainly will never win mother of the year and I found it hard to understand why Graham loved her in the first place.
Favorite Thing About The Book: I loved the relationships between Fannie, Queenie, Dollbaby, and Ibby.
First Sentence: There are times you wish you could change things, take things back, pretend they never existed.
Favorite Character: Fannie
Least Favorite Character: Muddy
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.