Imagine that you're almost twelve years old when your father dies. Then just days later your mother drives you from Seattle to your grandmother's house in New Orleans. That might be OK, but you never even knew you had a grandmother, and now you're watching your mother drive off, with no clear idea of when she'll return. This is what happened to Ibby Bell in early July of 1964:
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.—Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal (Penguin USA / Pamela Dorman Books, 2014, p. 3)
- Setting: New Orleans, 1960s
- Circumstances: After her father dies, Ibby Bell is left at her fraternal grandmother's house in New Orleans. Ibby doesn't understand why her mother abandoned her and she feels lost in a world that includes household staff, civil rights unrest, Vietnam War protests, church, and unfamiliar foods. As she matures into a young woman, Ibby learns that life is unpredictable and sometimes "you got to dance, even when there ain't no music."
- Characters: Liberty Bell (teenage years); Fannie Bell, her eccentric grandmother; Queenie, Babydoll, and the rest of the Trout family; various neighbors and friends
- Genre: historical fiction; coming of age; Southern fiction
- Themes: family, love, civil rights, doing what's right, helping those who need our help
- What I liked: I'm not quite finished yet, but McNeal has created memorable characters, each with their own issues, who help one another as best they can. I particularly like following Ibby's maturation, as she gains perspective on social class differences and human rights.
- Recommendations: Even though I haven't gotten to the end, I can recommend Dollbaby for anyone who likes a good coming-of-age story, quirky characters, and time pieces. Although the topics are deep (making it a good book club choice), the novel can also be approached on a lighter level as a good summer read. Yes, Fannie's life is sometimes hard to believe, but I have enjoyed getting to know her, Queenie, Dollybaby, and Ibby.
- Audiobook: I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 11 hr, 12 min) read by January Levoy. Let me cut to the chase: Levoy's performance is nothing short of brilliant. I love her characterizations and that she changes her tone so we can tell that Ibby is growing up. I can't distinguish among Southern accents, but I think Levoy does a great job with the various Louisiana dialects. Don't hesitate to listen to this one.