Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Dollbaby

Summary: 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. -- Pam Dorman Books

DOLLBABY by Laura Lane McNeal is being compared to two fantastic books, SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE HELP. On one hand, that will definitely pique many readers' interest because those books were huge; however, on the other hand, that sets expectations for DOLLBABY mighty high. While I enjoyed DOLLBABY quite a bit, I'm not sure I rank DOLLBABY up there with those books, but it is a good one and a very worthwhile read.

DOLLBABY is an insightful look into New Orleans, the South, and the Civil Rights Movement, but it's also a heart-warming story about family and friendship. The novel begins when Ibby Bell, a twelve year old girl whose father has recently died, is dropped off at her grandmother Fannie's house with little explanation. Fannie is quite the woman and some might say a little strange. She lives in an huge house in New Orleans that has its fair share of secrets, and she also tends to "visit" the local asylum on a pretty regular basis. Ibby is fortunate to have Fannie's black cook Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby to watch out for her and teach her the ways of the South.

Ibby learns to follow Fannie's rules (even if they don't always make sense), and she also becomes friends with Birdelia, Dollbaby's daughter. Ibby quickly learns that things are different in the South especially as it pertains to the differences between how blacks and whites live. As Ibby grows into her teenage years, she sees how the South changes -- lunch counter sit-ins, the Vietnam War, and even the passing of the Civil Rights Act. However, she also begins to understand Fannie's quirky behavior and even appreciate her eccentric grandmother.

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed DOLLBABY but I don't know if I loved it like I had hoped. I did appreciate that this was the author's debut novel, and it definitely shows that Ms. McNeal has a lot of promise as an author. The story was interesting, as were the characters; and I loved how well the author brought the South, and especially New Orleans, to life.

I don't know if what I'm going to say next will make much sense, but I almost think DOLLBABY just had too much going on. There were a lot of historical issues, along with the many family secrets; and they didn't always flow smoothly. While I did appreciate the pace of this novel (it was a very quick read for me), I just felt as if a lot of the events were skimmed over.

Having said that, I think what I enjoyed most about DOLLBABY was how it made me feel. This book certainly delves into some complicated (and not altogether happy) issues, but it still managed to have a heartwarming message about family and friends. I would consider DOLLBABY to be a coming-of-age story, and I admit I'm a sucker for those types of books, especially when they take place in the South during a time when so much was going on. Ibby learned so much about her family, her friends, and even herself; and it was touching to see how much she grew throughout the course of the novel.

DOLLBABY would make a wonderful book club selection especially for those groups, like mine, who enjoyed discussing SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT and THE HELP. There is a reading guide available with nine thought-provoking questions. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include family, secrets, race, class, change, risk, and friendship. I could also see many groups turning the meeting into a themed one with southern food and drinks!

DOLLBABY is sure to be a hit with readers who appreciate stories about the South and the Civil Rights Movement.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds like it would have been even better with tighter editing. I can't wait to read it!

Sarah (Sarah's Book Shelves) said...

I 100% agree with your review. I liked this one a lot...especially for a debut....great characters and fantastic job portraying the South. But, it did have too much going on...especially with the political movements. I think she should have just focused on the Civil Rights movement and avoided Vietnam.
However, very strong debut and I will absolutely read her next book.

Kim@Time2Read said...

This is one I want to read. I'm glad to know ahead of time that it has a lot going on. I think knowing ahead will make it easier to focus.

Beth F said...

I think I liked this more than you did. And I agree that it'd make a great book club selection