DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley from PENGUIN GROUP Viking/Pamela Dorman Books in exchange for an honest review.
Laura Lane McNeal
352 pages (ARC e-book)
New Orleans is known as the land of beads, beignets, boobs, and booze. It’s the city of parades, floats, and masked balls. It’s a paradise of excess and open containers. It is the bachelor- and bachelorette-party Mecca, and people travel hundreds and thousands of miles to relish in its splendor of strip clubs, bars, Hurricanes, oysters, and live music. It’s a place where you can take pictures with actual police officers, while drinking a beer on Bourbon Street at 2:00 a.m., that look like this:
But, for many Louisianians, New Orleans is dark and foreboding. When I lived in Baton Rouge, I knew several people who had been born and raised in Louisiana but had never been to New Orleans (keep in mind that New Orleans is a straight shot down I-10 from Baton Rouge–a trip that takes less than an hour and a half). In Baton Rouge, urban legends/cautionary tales about the dangers of New Orleans spread like wildfire (like the one about the girl who got AIDS when a stranger on Bourbon Street purposely pricked her with a tainted syringe).
Here’s the thing: Louisiana is, largely, a Southern red state of God-fearing people who value conservatism. So, New Orleans, a city that values eccentricity and debauchery, stands out like a sore thumb. It attracts oddballs, weirdos, and free spirits, folks looking for adventure, and people escaping from small towns and sheltered upbringings. And it’s been that way for a long while.
Dollbaby is a book set in New Orleans in the 1960s and ‘70s that centers around one such woman, Fannie, who escaped to New Orleans from Evangeline Parish in search of a new life when she was just a teenager. Fannie made a name for herself at a dance club in New Orleans (as Pearl, the Oyster Girl), where she met a well-to-do man who swept her off her feet and made her his wife.
When we meet Fannie, she is fifty-two and a little bit crazy. Fannie’s son, Graham, has recently passed away, and Vidrine, her gold-digging daughter-in-law, decides the best course of action is to leave twelve-year-old Ibby (Fannie’s only grandchild, whom she’s previously never met) at Fannie’s big, old mansion. Vidrine drops Ibby off with nothing but a small suitcase and an urn full of Graham’s ashes.
Soon after her arrival, Queenie and Doll, Fannie’s two long-time housemaids, indoctrinate Ibby into “The Rules”:
Rule Number One in this house. Don’t ever go asking Miss Fannie about her past. Gets her all emotional. Rule Number Two. She starts talking about her past, let her talk but don’t go asking no questions. Rule Number Three. You see her hand start twitching, you better change the subject or she gone have one of her spells. Rule Number Four. You got something you want to know, you come ask one of us.
Fannie has had a hard life and is prone to spells that require her to take frequent sojourns to the nearby mental hospital. The longer Ibby stays with Fannie, the more she learns about Fannie’s painful past. The book slowly unveils all of the losses, heartache, and challenges Fannie has been through that make her the strong but damaged woman she is when Ibby meets her.
Dollbaby captures the spirit of New Orleans best with its unique cast of characters. There’s the eponymous Dollbaby, who has “one eye as dark as obsidian, and another as light as washed-out sky,” is an incredible seamstress, and stages sit-ins with her friends at restaurants to promote equal rights. There’s Annabelle, the slutty neighborhood bully with wild hair. There’s T-Bone, Dollbaby’s trombone-playing, Vietnam-vet brother, who teaches Ibby how to dance like James Brown. There’s Lucy, the jilted bride with “gray hair braided in a long plait down her back,” who rollerskates in the French Quarter “in a tattered wedding dress and a big floppy hat,” who always has a small flock of ducks that follow her, scrambling to keep up.
Characters like Madame Doussan (who mixes Fannie’s special perfume by hand) and Sister Gertrude (a nun at Ibby’s school with an interesting past) represent New Orleans well. The problem is that there are a ton of characters in this book, so many, in fact, that they (along with their subplots) often feel tangential and/or underdeveloped. They add some color to the book but little in the way of substance.
The book is about race, acceptance, and family. These are all themes that have been tackled in literature a billion times before, and they are not handled in a particularly unique or surprising or interesting manner here. As far as plot is concerned, it’s pretty predictable. But, because the characters (and setting!) are interesting and likeable, the story itself doesn’t feel too tired.
One final thought: I just have to throw this in here, a propos of nothing: I love the cover of this book. It is gorgeous. That is all.
- An Indie Next Pick for July 2014
- A LibraryReads List selection for July 2014
Who should read it: Toya (i.e., people from Louisiana who would appreciate the New Orleans characters that fill the pages of this book).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014 about South and Central American immigrants living in Delaware)
- One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (a LibraryReads List selection and Indie Next List pick for July 2014 by the author of Me Before You)