Dollbaby: A Novel

Dollbaby: A Novel

4.4 23
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 NewSee more details below

Overview


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.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-15
In the vein ofSaving CeeCee HoneycuttandThe Help, McNeal’s touching coming-of-age tale brings to life Civil Rights–era New Orleans.When 12-year-old Ibby’s father dies in an accident, her no-good mother, Vidrine, hauls her across the country to live with a grandmother she’s never met: the tragic, eccentric and indomitable Fannie Bell. Fannie's big house in New Orleans is like nothing Ibby’s seen in Olympia, Washington; of particular note are the two black women, Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby, who work there. Soon, Ibby learns the Fannie Rules: Don’t ask questions, don’t unlock the doors on the second floor, and don’t talk about the past. Infractions send Fannie to the mental hospital for a “rest,” a not-infrequent event. Ibby begins private school and becomes friends with Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia; though the same age, they live remarkably different lives in the segregated South. Dollbaby goes to lunch-counter sit-ins, her brother T-Bone goes to Vietnam, the Civil Rights Amendment is passed, and slowly, the old guard of the South gives way to hippies. The story wanders gently along: Ibby has a Sweet 16 party, an old tree falls on the house, nasty Annabelle Friedrichs accuses T-Bone of rape (this lie is easily revealed thanks to Miss Fannie’s cleverness), and though at times the plotting is overly episodic, with few natural transitions to link the scenes, McNeal’s portrait of a time and place is rich enough to mitigate the flaws. Slowly, a picture of Fannie’s past emerges, one that explains the frequent visits to the mental hospital and also her great generosity. At Fannie’s mysterious demise, final secrets are revealed—truths that will tug a tear from the hardest of hearts.Rich characterization makes McNeal’s debut a lovely summer read.
From the Publisher
“In this tender coming-of-age novel, McNeal brings to life a place, an era, and an amazing cast of strong, larger-than-life characters. Heartrending, captivating, and ultimately, triumphant.”
Cassandra KingNew York Times bestselling author of Moonrise

“McNeal’s Dollbaby is such an impressive debut—a powerful roux of family drama, long-simmering secrets and resentments, and ultimately, forgiveness and redemption. Deeply evocative, with memorable characters, Dollbaby belongs on the keeper shelf along with The Help and The Secret Life of Bees.”
Mary Kay AndrewsNew York Times bestselling author of Ladies' Night

“Deeply southern and evocative, Laura Lane McNeal’s beautifully written debut, Dollbaby, takes us back to a not-so-long ago time when we were learning to look through different eyes at the fabric of our society, race, youth and family."
Susan Crandall, author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

"This flavorful and enthralling novel brilliantly captures New Orleans during the civil rights era. It's a deeply personal tale about growing up and searching for family as well as a provocative exploration of race and kinship. I found it both thrilling and poignant."
Walter IsaacsonNew York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs

"There is plenty of mystery and deception in Dollbaby, but the prevailing theme is love and its power to blast away even the biggest betrayals. Reading this evocative Southern novel is like alternately sipping sweet tea and healthy snorts of bournon."
Lorna Landvik, bestselling author of Patty Jane's House of Curl

"Don't be surprised if you see McNeal's book in a lot of beach totes along the Gulf Coast this summer."—New Orleans Times Picayune
 
“When someone asks you for a great book to read, usually you pause and think about genre and authors and then give a few options. But every now and then there’s a book you tell everyone to read, because it is that good. Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal is that book.” —Durham Herald-Sun

“A vivid portrayal of post-war New Orleans, lush and evocative in its descriptions, McNeal’s unique voice shines through surprising and pleasing the reader. Fans of Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd will enjoy this new Southern talent.” —Library Journal (starred review)

"In the vein of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help, McNeal's touching coming-of-age tale brings to life Civil Rights-era New Orleans. . . . Rich characterization makes McNeal's debut a lovely summer read."Kirkus

“A touching coming-of-age story that is sincere and poignant.”—Booklist

"McNeal's witty prose and expertise on all things New Orleans will enrapture readers of The Help and Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood."BookPage

“Beautifully rendered and perfectly paved, Dollbaby is one novel this year not to be missed, with just the right amount of mystery mixed with coming of age drama.”--Book Reporter

Library Journal
★ 07/01/2014
Ibby Bell is dumped by her mother on her grandmother's doorstep, holding an urn with the ashes of her recently deceased father. The naïve, spirited teenager arrives in New Orleans in the midst of the racial turmoil of the 1960s. Her eccentric, wealthy grandmother Fannie's house holds myriad secrets: locked rooms, asylum visits, racial tension, and dark truths. The saving graces in Ibby's new life are the blooming friendships she finds with Fannie's cook Queenie and her daughter, nicknamed Dollbaby, who help her navigate Southern life and show her the true meaning of family. VERDICT Bursting with believable conflict and lovable characters, along with a lush and evocative portrait of the Crescent City during the civil rights era, this debut novel marks the arrival of an original and assured writer. Fans of Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd will enjoy this new Southern talent. [See Editors' Picks, "Books for the Masses," p. 28; July LibraryReads pick, p. 119.—Ed.]—Julia M. Reffner, Fairport, NY

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670014736
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/03/2014
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
313,820
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Laura Lane McNeal

Chapter One

There are times you wish you could change things, take things back, pretend they never existed. This was one of those times, Ibby Bell was thinking as she stared bug-eyed out the car window. Amid the double-galleried homes and brightly painted cottages on Prytania Street, there was one house that didn’t belong.

“Ibby?” Her mother turned down the radio and began drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.

Ibby ignored her, letting her mother’s words mingle with the buzz of the air conditioning and the drone of the idling car engine as she craned her neck, trying to get a better look at the house that was stubbornly obscured by the sprawling branches of a giant oak tree and the glare of the midmorning sun. She cupped her hands over her eyes and glanced up to find a weathervane shaped like a racehorse jutting high above the tallest branches of the tree. It was flapping to and fro in the tepid air, unable to quite make the total spin around the rusted stake, giving the poor horse the appearance of being tethered there against its will.

I know that feeling, Ibby thought.

The weathervane was perched atop a long spire attached to a cupola. Ibby’s eyes traveled to the second-floor balcony, then down to the front porch, where a pair of rocking chairs and a porch swing swayed gently beside mahogany doors inlaid with glass. Surrounded on all sides by a low iron fence, the house looked like an animal that had outgrown its cage.

Her mother had described it as a Queen Anne Victorian monstrosity that should have been bulldozed years ago. Ibby now understood what she meant. The old mansion was suffering from years of neglect. A thick layer of dirt muddied the blue paint, windows were boarded up, and the front yard was so overgrown with wild azaleas and unruly boxwoods that Ibby could barely make out the brick walkway that led up to the house.

“Liberty, are you listening to me?”
It was the way Vidrine Bell said Ibby’s real name, the way she said Li-bar-tee with a clear Southern drawl that she usually went to great lengths to hide, that got her attention.

Vidrine’s face was glistening with sweat despite the air conditioning tousling her well-lacquered hair. She patted the side of her mouth with her finger, trying to salvage the orange lipstick that was seeping into the creases and filling the car with the smell of melted wax.

“Damn humidity,” Vidrine huffed. “No one should have to live in a place hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.”

The heat, her mother claimed, was one of the reasons she and Ibby’s father had moved away from New Orleans just after they married. Far, far away. To a little town called Olympia, in the state of Washington. Where no one had a Southern accent. Except, on occasion, the Bell family.

“Whatever you do, Liberty Bell, don’t forget this.” Vidrine patted the double-handled brass urn sitting like a sentinel between them on the front seat. Her mouth curled up at the edges. “Be sure and tell your grandmother it’s a present from me.”

Ibby glanced down at the urn her mother was pushing her way. A week ago that urn didn’t exist. Now she was being told to give it to a grandmother she’d never met. Ibby turned and looked at the house again. She didn’t know which was worse, the sneer on her mother’s face, or the thought of having to go into that big ugly house to meet her grandmother for the first time.

She eyed her mother, wondering why no one had bothered to mention that she even had a grandmother until a few months ago. She’d learned about it by chance, when on a clear day in March, as her father went to pay for ice cream at the school fair, a faded photograph fell from his wallet and floated wearily to the ground. Ibby picked it up and studied the stone-faced woman in the picture for a moment before her daddy took it from her.

“Who is that?” Ibby asked.

“Oh, that’s your grandmother,” he said, hastily stuffing the photo back into his wallet in a way that made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Later that week, while she and Vidrine were doing the dishes, Ibby got up enough gumption to ask her mother about the woman in the photograph. Vidrine glared at her with those big round eyes that looked like cue balls and threw the dish towel to the ground, slammed her fist on the counter, then launched into a lengthy tirade that made it clear that Frances Hadley Bell, otherwise known as Fannie, was the other reason they’d moved away from New Orleans right after she and Graham Bell were married.

And now here Ibby was, about to be dropped off at this woman’s house without any fanfare, and her mother acting as if it were no big deal.

“Why are you leaving me here? Can’t I come with you?” Ibby pleaded.

Her mother fell back against the seat, exasperated. “Now, Ibby, we’ve been through this a thousand times. Now that your father has passed away, I need some time away . . . to think.”

“Why won’t you tell me where you’re going?”

“That’s something you just don’t need to know,” Vidrine snapped.

“How long will you be gone?”

Vidrine frowned. “A few days. Maybe a week. It’s hard to tell. Your grandmother was kind enough to offer to keep you until I figure this whole thing out.”

Ibby’s ears perked up. Kind was not one of the words her mother had used to describe Fannie Bell.

In the background, she could hear the radio.

“This is WTIX Radio New Orleans,” the announcer said. “Up next, The Moody Blues . . .”

“Turn that up—that was one of Daddy’s favorite new bands,” Ibby said.

Vidrine turned off the radio. “Now go on. She won’t bite.” She poked Ibby in the ribs, causing the brass urn to teeter and fall over on the seat.

Ibby straightened it back up, letting her fingers linger on the cool brass handle. She swallowed hard, wondering why her mother was being so secretive. Now that her father was gone, she got the feeling that what her mother really wanted was to get away from her.

Vidrine leaned over and said in a soft voice, “Now listen, honey, I
know it’s hard to understand why God takes some people from this earth before their time. But he took your daddy in a silly bicycle accident. And now . . . well, we just have to move on somehow.”

Ibby gave her mother a sideways glance. God was a word her mother had never uttered until her father died, and being left with someone she’d never met for an indefinite period of time wasn’t exactly Ibby’s idea of moving on. But she was just shy of twelve years old, and no one had bothered to ask her opinion on the matter.
She let her hand fall from the urn. “Aren’t you at least going to come in with me?” Ibby asked.

Vidrine crossed her arms. “Liberty Alice Bell, quit your whining and get on out of this car right now. I’ve got to go.”

“But Mom—”

“Now remember what I told you. Be a good girl. Don’t give your grandmother any trouble. And one more thing.” Her mother leaned in closer and wagged a finger. “Try not to pick up any of those awful expressions like y’all or ain’t. It’s just not ladylike. Understand me?”

Before Ibby could answer, Vidrine reached over, opened the door, and pushed her out of the car.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“In this tender coming-of-age novel, McNeal brings to life a place, an era, and an amazing cast of strong, larger-than-life characters. Heartrending, captivating, and ultimately, triumphant.”
Cassandra King, New York Times bestselling author of Moonrise

“McNeal’s Dollbaby is such an impressive debut—a powerful roux of family drama, long-simmering secrets and resentments, and ultimately, forgiveness and redemption. Deeply evocative, with memorable characters, Dollbaby belongs on the keeper shelf along with The Help and The Secret Life of Bees.”
Mary Kay Andrews, New York Times bestselling author of Ladies' Night

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