Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Dollbaby, Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel, is a Southern gothic tale with the requisite decaying mansion, locked rooms, long-held secrets, and a sometimes eccentric, sometimes just plain crazy owner named Fannie.
Almost-twelve-year-old Ibby Bell finds herself deposited at the door of her grandmother Fannie’s “Queen Anne monstrosity” in New Orleans after her father dies and her nasty mother Vidrine needs “time to think.” At her mother’s insistence, Ibby gives her grandmother a present, an urn filled with her father’s ashes. A gift that causes Fannie to faint dead away. An astute child, Ibby realizes that was exactly her mother’s intention.
Now Fannie and her black household help, Queenie and Dollbaby (Doll), must assume responsibility for raising Ibby to become a proper young lady. Doll believes “Miss Fannie couldn’t take care of herself, much less a child.” The child’s presence revitalizes Fannie, who begins to take better care of herself and sees to the child’s needs. Fannie regresses periodically, experiencing one of her “spells,” which have become an accepted part of life in the household.
The title refers not only to the character Dollbaby but also to the dolls she makes and gives to Ibby Bell on each of her birthdays while she lives in the mansion. An accomplished seamstress, Doll makes all of Ibby’s clothes as well, though as Ibby grows older, she longs to buy the fashionable short dresses sold in department stores.
Ibby Bell acquires a few friends, especially Birdelia, Doll’s daughter; and T-Bone, Doll’s brother, who recently returned from Vietnam.
She also must deal with an enemy, Annabelle, the daughter of a society woman who lives down the street from Fannie. Ibby comes home from their first playdate with a shiner, and things only go downhill from there over the years. Neither Annabelle nor her mother has a single redeeming quality or dimension at all. The complete collapse of both Annabelle and her mother feels heavy-handed and forced: punishment meted out for not being kinder to Ibby.
As in many Southern gothic novels, miscegenation makes an appearance. Set against a backdrop of Jim Crow laws and sit-ins, racial prejudice permeates the story. In one fine scene, Ibby and Fannie stand up for T-Bone against false accusations.
The book’s greatest strength is its recognition that families come in all forms and that love, rather than blood, is the strongest tie of all.
However, actions by main characters would have benefited from stronger, more believable motivation. In one case, a man who is purported to truly love a woman turns his back on her when she needs him most. The relationship didn’t feel valid as it was presented. In another case, a character who survives numerous tragedies suddenly gives up on life with no discernible reason provided.
One thread of the story simply disappears. A couple of times, an incident is referred to where Miss Fannie is outside a door, insisting that “Little Mama” is in there. It is hinted that Doll knows what Miss Fannie is talking about and she will tell Ibby later what it means, but later never comes.
McNeal spins a good story that reads easily, yet the lack of nuance in character development, anemic motivation, and the dropped thread undercut what might have been a more powerful novel. Dollbaby was published by Pamela Dorman Books, a division of Viking.
The author grew up in New Orleans, where she lives today with her family.