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Dollbaby: A Novel

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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 ...
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Dollbaby: A Novel

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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.
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: Pamela Dorman Books
  • Publication date: 7/3/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 42,165
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Laura Lane McNeal grew up in New Orleans, where she lives today with her husband and two sons. She graduated from Southern Methodist University. She also has an MBA from Tulane and ran her own marketing consulting firm in New Orleans. This is her first novel.
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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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2014

    Reminiscent of Tennessee Williams

    Laura Lane McNeal paints exquisite portraits of real New Orleans people, not Downtown folks like Stella and Stanley Kowalski. No these are the city’s elite, Fannie Bell and her granddaughter Liberty, living in a Queen Anne Victorian mansion on Prytania Street. Their streetcar line is not Desire, but St. Charles where bankers, brokers and shipping executives ride home each evening in white linen and fashionable seersucker suits up one of America’s most spectacular boulevards lined with one legendary mansion after another.
    At Miss Fannie’s, there are servants, black ladies in the southern style, Queenie and her daughter Doll. But just like down in the gritty part of the city where Stanley, Stella and Blanche wrestle with their impossible lives, Uptown on Prytania, there are what some today call issues. Are there ever.
    You see, in Ms. McNeal’s New Orleans it’s 1964. And 188 miles north up the Illinois Central Railroad Mississippi Freedom Summer is unfolding in Jackson, a little southern city rapidly becoming infamous throughout the world for racist brutality, murder and lawless mobs of night riders.
    This is the world that Mississippi native Vidrine Bell pushes her shocked, frightened daughter Ibby into, really — pushes the child out of the car and onto the sidewalk in front of her grandmother’s house.
    Ibby's mother’s parting advice had been “Liberty Alice Bell, quit your whining …"
    Extremely well written. Totally fascinating.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The Best Debut Novel of 2014!

    A special thank you to PENGUIN GROUP Viking, Pamela Dorman Books, and NetGalley for an ARC, in exchange for an honest review.

    Move over Southern writers, this newfound author is here to stay! THIS GIRL IS ON FIRE! Laura Lane McNeal, where have you been? Hands down, DOLLBABY, A predicted bestseller chart topper.

    From the exquisite and stunning front cover, beautiful fonts, and the intricate filigree throughout the book—resonating the elegant New Orleans style of southern charm and sophistication, worthy of this much loved historical setting—matched with a beautifully- written, impressive debut novel, from the first page to the last.

    A heartwarming and poignant story of strong women, facing many obstacles, tragedies, and challenges in a time of racial tension during the 60’s and 70’s. From Civil Rights, Vietnam, family secrets, and lies, to the days of Woolworth’s, President Johnson, Black and white TVs to color---in the exciting and beautiful southern backdrop, where architecture, jazz, music, dance, southern creole and Cajun food feed your soul.

    What a storyteller---this inspiring, uplifting and funny novel, full of flawed and lovable characters, will keep crying and laughing, as they win reader’s hearts.

    It was 1964 and Liberty Alice Bell (Ibby) 12 yr.-old, born on July 4th, from Washington, has just lost her dad, due to a biking accident (they were on their father-daughter outing). Ibby’s mom, Vidrine, (not a very caring mom), dumps her daughter, (with no explanation), along with her dad’s ashes and an urn---on her eccentric grandmother, Fannie’s doorstep, in the historical area of New Orleans. Of course, Vidrine does not care for her mother-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely, mutual.

    Ibby is not aware she has a grandmother prior to this date, nor is she knowledgeable of her southern roots, her dad’s family, or anything about this foreign culture. She is grief stricken, and now left alone with a grandmother she does not even know, in a strange town.

    Boy, is she in for a treat of her life, when she is greeted by Fannie’s black, smart and wise housekeeper, and cook-- Queenie, who seems to run the household. Queenie came with the house, and has been with Miss Fannie since she was eighteen. She has seen and heard it all, and well equipped for the job!

    This group loves hiding things, and keeping secrets to protect their owner. (And let me tell you, this family has plenty of dark, hidden secrets), keeping you engrossed from beginning to end!

    As Ibby searches for a family and her own identify, she finally comes to know her real grandmother, with all her secrets and flaws; and love of the other powerful women in the house on Prytania Street, who irrevocably shaped and nurtured her grandmother, past the ghosts she left behind.

    From the flash backs to the fifties to the present time of sixties through the seventies – what a ride, from loss and love, to forgiveness and redemption.

    Would love to continue to hear more about future adventures of Ibby, Doll, Birdelia, and T-Bone. Fans will definitely root for a movie –as can you image the cast?

    A powerful, thought-provoking, inspiring, and satisfying read. I highly recommend! A talented author you will want to follow for years to come-can’t wait to see what comes next!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    There's so many things that I absolutely love about Dollbaby. It

    There's so many things that I absolutely love about Dollbaby. It's set in the South. Being from the South, I always love reading about the history and culture in fiction books. The Southern-isms (like "bless your heart" is more insulting than complimentary) are wonderfully done in this book. It's about learning family secrets. Southern families (and I'm sure this isn't just a Southern thing, but that's where my experience lies), it seems, are full of crazy secrets. Whether it's discovering your own family secrets or someone else's, it's always interesting. It's a coming of age story. Taking place over eight years, we see growth mostly in Ibby, but there's change in the entire cast of characters. Speaking of which, it's got such delightful, realistic characters. I loved them all.

    The only thing that I was confused about during my time reading this book was why it was named as such. Surely a book about Ibby shouldn't be named Dollbaby. By the end of the book, though, it makes perfect sense. And I absolutely loved it.

    While I enjoyed the entire book, the last few chapters are really what made me fall in love with it. Dollbaby is a great story. It's touching and just all around wonderful. I highly recommend this one.

    * This book was received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. *

    You can read all of my reviews on my blog, KDH Reviews.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2014

    Ibby Bell's mother has decided to abandon her with a newly, to h

    Ibby Bell's mother has decided to abandon her with a newly, to her, discovered grandmother in a strange, faraway place after her father's sudden passing. She's convinced she will be miserable and will just have to count days til her mother returns. How long will she wait? Could there be anything good in this weird house?

    A powerful, emotionally charged narrative guides characters and readers through turmoils of the 60s-70s as well as personal struggles.

    Characters are authentic, emotional, caring, and develop as the story progresses.

    Overall, a compelling read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2014

    An Enjoyable if Obvious Read.

    An Enjoyable if Obvious Read. If you love New Orleans (one of my favorite cities) then this novel evokes that city, beautifully. Set from 1964-1972, the action covers the Civil Rights Movement from the perspectives of an eccentric (of course) New Orleans family with plenty of dark secrets--obviously. I kept thinking of 'The Help' throughout yet the characters here did not draw me in the way that previous novel's did. But this is generally well written and keeps you interested despite the fact there are no real surprises. A lot of this is predictable if you're paying attention and the same kinds of family 'mysteries' appear in countless other tales set in the Deep South, in particular. All that being said, I would recommend picking this up--it's a fast and engaging experience for the most part, and I think the author has a lot of potential.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2014

    One of my new favorite books

    Great story. Made me laugh, made me cry and made me fall in love with quite a few characters in the book. Story similar to 'the help' but a more interesting character line up, each with their own past and personality.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Actually Dollbaby was a little better than good. If you like Sou

    Actually Dollbaby was a little better than good. If you like Southern books and secrets ( I do ) then you'll like it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2014

    Loved it!

    This is a story of how revealed family secrets, good or bad, validate who you are.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2014

    Great book!

    Loved the book the story plot kept me wanting more I couldn't put the book down read it even during my lunch breaks at work because I was sooo obssesed. MUST READ

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2014

    Great book!!

    A book I could not put down!

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  • Posted September 3, 2014

    Loved the characters in this book and the New Orleans setting.

    Loved the characters in this book and the New Orleans setting. Very enjoyable read!

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  • Posted July 3, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I don¿t really know where to start with this one. It¿s a very we

    I don’t really know where to start with this one. It’s a very well written novel, but I struggled to see where it was going, what it was focusing on. With a title like Dollbaby, I expected the novel to infact be about the character Dollbaby, but it’s not. Instead, the novel centers around Ibby, a young white girl thrust into a life in New Orleans with her eccentric grandmother, Fannie. As Ibby attempts to navigate life and her feelings of abandonment, she comes to rely on the help, both Queenie and Dollbaby, to understand her grandmother’s past and to begin to live for her future, but the novel didn’t seem, at least to me, to have a precise direction.

    It's the 1960s, and the civil rights movement is in full swing, but the novel isn't really about that, and it's not really about Fannie, or Ibby’s coming of age, even. Truthfully, I had a hard time pinpointing the purpose of the novel as I read. It moves slowly along, like I'd expect life in the South to move, and while vivid and, as I said, very well written, I just couldn't get over the fact that the novel is called Dollbaby, and Dollbaby is indeed a secondary character who doesn't drive the plot. She is occasionally thrown in as attending a demonstration or consoling Ibby, but that’s about it. In truth, I found that not much drives the plotline of this story—I guess it's more of a coming of age story of sorts in which readers learn about Ibby as she grows up in New Orleans, putting together the pieces of her family and edging into the sad and dark secrets kept by those around her. But, I wouldn’t even say the novel is about those secrets, either. I just felt like this was a historical fiction story with snippets of happenings here and there thrown in. I never grew attached to any of the characters, and while parts were interesting in their own right, I have to say the novel on the whole just isn't my style.
    While the end brought everything together in terms of the title, characters, and even a few events, something I’d been looking for the entire time I read, it was too late in the storyline to really hit home with me. Had the novel moved faster and tied together events in a way that made sense to me, I think I would have enjoyed it more. As is, it’s just too slow a pace for my tastes. I think someone who really enjoys historical fiction might like this novel, perhaps.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 14, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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