REVIEW: Fantastic debut of New Orleans author
“Dollbaby” by Laura Lane McNeal
(Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, hardcover, $26.95)
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. You haven’t heard of her before because this is her debut novel. What a way to start.
“Dollbaby” is about race and class and New Orleans and family and secrets and birth and death. It’s not easy to weave those serious topics together in a way that doesn’t seem forced, or doesn’t seem real. The South and race and the intertwined lives of white people and African-Americans is nearly its own genre. But only a few of those books really tell the complexity of the stories in a compelling way. McNeal writes with authority. She grew up in New Orleans and lives there still. There’s no white character that saves all the black characters. There’s no singular heroine or villain. There is the grey area of lives lived and carried on.
Soon after 12-year-old Ibby’s father dies in an accident, her mother drops her off at her grandmother Fannie’s house in New Orleans. And by dropped off, Ibby’s mother just pulled up to a mansion and let Ibby out of the car to meet a grandmother she scarcely knew existed, much less had met.
But within the week, Ibby becomes part of the family, both to her grandmother Fannie and the women who work there – Queenie the cook, and her daughter Doll, a seamstress, who are both African-American. That fateful first week also contains the July day that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, something monumental to Queenie and Doll, but interfering with the television watching of Fannie. Yet some of Fannie’s other actions are more progressive than expected.
In Queenie and Doll, and Doll’s daughter Birdelia, readers see how each generation reacts to the changes that come with the civil rights movement. As the story progresses, we learn everyone’s back stories have as many twists as the giant old tree in the front yard. Without giving away the plot turns, just know readers will be surprised at revelations and each one draws readers further into those associated with that house in that city at that time. There are a lot of interesting New Orleans cultural details, too, like funeral processions and food and flavor.
When the book’s over, it’s hard to say goodbye to the characters you’ve grown to love. “Dollbaby” is a novel that will likely reach high on the best-seller list – or it should, anyway. It could be a great film, too. The storytelling is so good, you can’t stop reading it but don’t want to finish.
In the book jacket blurb, McNeal says she was inspired to fulfill her lifelong dream of writing fiction after living through Hurricane Katrina. Let’s hope it won’t take another storm to get McNeal started on what one would hope is a writing career as robust with flavor as what comes out of New Orleans.
WHEN: 7 p.m. July 15
WHERE: Flyleaf Books
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill
Follow on Twitter: @dawnbvaughan