Building a Family in Civil Rights Era New Orleans

Dollbaby: A Novel, by Laura Lane McNeal, (Penguin Group), 338 pages

About a week ago, I made a list of my ten favorite reads published so far this year. Now I’m going to have to figure out which one to kick off because Laura Lane McNeal’s Dollbaby definitely has to be there.

Dollbaby is set in New Orleans during the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s got all the elements you’d expect from a southern novel: a big, decaying house, an eccentric matriarch, servants who have become family, racial tension, and a whole passel of family secrets. After her father’s death, Ibby (short for Liberty) is dropped into this house to live with Fannie, a grandmother she’s never met; Ibby’s mother drives off to “figure her own life out.”

In less capable hands, this is the sort of novel that could degenerate into melodrama quickly, but McNeal’s deft, simple prose never allows that to happen. Each of the novel’s secrets has its own logic, and each secret forces the characters to hold one another at a distance—but the love and loyalty among them is clear. Even when the improbable is happening, the characters come across as genuine. As a reader, I never questioned the actions in the book because I was so engaged by the individuals populating it.

This is definitely a book worth buying in hardback—or requesting from your local library this very day. Read it, spend time with its characters, ponder events and might-have-beens. It will be time well spent.