There are parts of Laura Lane McNeal’s DOLLBABY that I absolutely loved, parts that I could have done without, parts that I wanted more of, and parts that I didn’t quite understand. Essentially, to begin at the end, I wanted to know Ibby, Fannie, Doll, and Queenie better than I got to during the course of the novel.
It’s always a good thing when you want more and feel a little cheated, even when the story was fantastic.
The story begins in 1964 when Liberty Alice “Ibby” Bell is deposited on her grandmother’s New Orleans doorstep after the death of her father. Ibby is a fish out of water in the world of the south; she’s never spoken to a black person and she doesn’t understand the role maids play in the lives of families there. But she finds a family in her eccentric grandmother (eccentric with wholly good reason), the cook Queenie, her daughter Dollbaby, and her daughter Birdelia. Part of the charm of the story is that the years of the civil rights movement are seen through the perspective of a teenage white girl in New Orleans, a girl who begins the story with wide-eyed wonder and no preconceptions and finds the family she hardly knew she needed.
The novel is as much about Fannie as it is about Ibby. Fannie lives the life of an upper class New Orleans lady, but separate from the rest because of her past on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. It’s Queenie who taught her mistress who to behave in the new environment and Fannie never loses sight of who she was, even as it haunts her daily. She loves fiercely and she lost tragically, and those losses shape her and Ibby through her, even though Ibby doesn’t learn of some of it until Fannie is gone.
The title of the novel is the only real confusion I have. Dollbaby, her real name is Viola Trout, is the housekeeper/seamstress for Fannie and becomes a surrogate sister/mother of sorts for Ibby – but so do Fannie and Queen and Birdelia – so it’s obvious that she is a major player in the story. But to name the entire book after her when it is the story of so many others…
The other iffy area are the flashbacks (and it should be noted I read an advanced reader’s copy) which are entered into without transition and ended just as abruptly.
I wanted more of some events in the story, more development, more background, more detail. I found the characters interesting enough that the book could’ve been twice as long and I would’ve liked it.
(I received a copy of DOLLBABY through NetGalley and Penguin Group Viking in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)