30 June 2014

Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal

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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 HelpDollbaby 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.

Typically I am not one to pick up Southern fiction – though not for any particular reason – but I am glad I broke from my recent reading trend and read Laura Lane McNeal’s Dollbaby. Set in Civil Rights-era New Orleans, this novel approaches the prominent race-related tensions and the swift currents of unrest gently yet authentically through her flawed, relatable, endearing characters. As I read, I felt McNeal seems to engage this history realistically without being overwhelmingly and excessively “in your face” or “over the top.” And amidst these historical aspects, she crafts a hopeful, page-turning coming-of-age tale of defining family, surviving grief and loss, embracing fate, uncovering the secret moments that forever alter life. I loved this sweetly and emotionally well-written novel and definitely recommend it. I thank Penguin’s First to Read for providing me with a copy of Dollbaby in exchange for my honest review.

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