Almost a year between posts. That has to be a new low in my already sorry record. But oh ye blog gods, please don’t flog me for my horrible attention to this project, for I am self-flagellating as we speak. Also, I sort of have a good excuse. While I was away, I popped out another baby human! He has been taking up the majority of my time (babies are so selfish) and I am just now re-emerging into the world of outside interests. I’m sure my posting frequency won’t noticeably improve from here on out, but I sure hope repeat childbirth won’t be the reason each time. Anyway, how are you guys? Good? You’ll be glad to know that our Canby Hall friends have waited patiently for us in all their eighties glory, not experiencing one bit of character development in the interim. Let’s get to it.
So the second book in the Andy-Jane-Toby half of this series captures them at an interesting point in their life cycle together. They’re still a little stiff and prickly with each other, don’t yet know each other all that well, and have not settled into the easy comfortable rhythm all good friends have (and which they clearly have by later in the series.) As much as I hate to give credit to this imbecilic motley crew of writers, I’m a little impressed that they managed to get that depiction across despite a different person writing each book. Less impressive? This series’ continued hero-worship of the original three roommates. We’ll get to that.
First, the cover. Cary Slade is always described as a rebellious rock-star type with “long hair and a single gold earring” as if that is the height of societal mutiny, yet the covers never — I mean, never — portray him that way. I mean, could the dude look more clean-cut? Just to be clear, I have nothing against clean-cut. In fact, it’s vastly my preference. It’s just that it’s not accurate. Would the parents of teenage girls in the 1980s have refused to purchase books with a long-haired guy on the cover under the assumption that they were clearly smut? I think I’ve said this before, but … I kind of miss those more innocent times. Anyway, then there’s Jane, who looks more like someone whose fortieth birthday is in their rearview mirror rather than someone who turned fifteen literally weeks before. And of course, our Texas caricature Toby. Are we to believe that Toby parades around this small Massachusetts town wearing a cowboy hat all day and night? To add insult to the required suspension of disbelief, that’s not even a cowboy hat in that picture. That’s a top hat. Maybe she has a magic wand she uses to conjure up good writers. (Tobes, it’s obviously not working.)
So the premise of this book is that Jane is juggling her longtime boyfriend Neal and her new rocker boyfriend Cary, and hasn’t told them about each other. For once in this series, everyone else actually thinks dishonesty is wrong (I’ll enjoy it now, I doubt it ever happens again) and they’re constantly on her back for it. Next-door dorm neighbour Dee, especially, is particularly harsh to Jane whenever she gets a chance to be. However, this has to be the one time the sinner probably could have been cut a little slack. After much pressure from her dormmates, Jane writes a break-up letter to Neal. He promptly informs both sets of parents. Both moms get involved. I actually feel a little sorry for Jane. “Our folks really expect us to be married some day,” she tells Andy, by way of explaining why it took her so long to come clean. Andy: “That kind of thing is ancient history. People don’t do that anymore.” How culturally uneducated you are, Andrea! Neal sends flower delivery after flower delivery to Jane.
Meanwhile, Toby decides to get into tennis in order to have something more in common with her
sloppy seconds crush Randy. She practices at the expense of all else, leading to her grades slipping and a warning from housemother Alison. Gigi Norton is also a tennis player and makes various embarrassing wisecracks about Toby’s performance. As an aside, why does Toby keep saying she didn’t have any friends back home just because she lived on a ranch? She did go to school. I went to a magnet school as a kid, which meant that none of my classmates lived near me, and they were far closer friends to me than my neighbours. Also, all these stereotypes about Texas are even more absurd now that I’m older and know so many people from Texas. Exactly none of them are ranchers, uncomfortable around other people, or users of lingo such as “hunkering” and “I’m gonna head them off at the pass.”
Over in Andy’s world, she is nervous about auditioning for the school’s latest musical. She calls home for reassurance, during prime collect call rates and during her parents’ restaurant’s lunch rush, and then feels all bad about doing so. Man, how tough life was before cell phones! And why is she so crushingly nervous if she’s had all this prior dance experience? Of note, she mentions that she hasn’t been to Oakley Prep yet. What about that dance she went to with Jane in the last book, where Jane was taking notes? @#!*% you, continuity!
Although Jane helps Andy and Toby with their tennis/dance worries, Andy has less sympathy for Jane’s two-boy problem because Jane brought it on herself. They bicker. Again. “She’s not our mother, you know,” says Toby about Jane. “I’ve got a mother,” snaps Andy. Kind of insensitive, considering Toby doesn’t.
Remember their next-door neighbour Maggie, sister of the impossibly stylish former Canby girl Dana? It was constantly beaten over our heads how fashionable and sophisticated Dana was, since her mom was a department store buyer and all. Well, said mom’s other daughter is described as wearing owl glasses, a crazy jean jacket with slogans down the sleeves, and a giant muffler hanging to her knees. I guess if you have to wear glasses, you might as well just give up entirely. Anyway, Maggie is excited to the level of urinary incontinence that former 407-girl Faith is presenting in a photography exhibition in Boston and may stop by the Canby Hall campus for like two minutes. The three new roommates are basically like, Who cares? and I agree.
Andy’s audition process for the musical is really intense. The prospective cast members are expected to learn ballet choreography on the spot and perform it as a group, including lifts and everything. Are there that many trained dancers in a non-performing arts high school that you can actually weed them out? I figured you’d have to cast the two people who had actually taken dance lessons and hope for the best. Anyway, Andy is picked for the chorus but doesn’t get the lead role, and immediately decides it’s because she’s black, and becomes sullen and withdrawn.
In order to escape the meadow of flowers that her room has become, Jane goes to hang out with Cary at the diner. Gigi and her friends come in and accidentally-on-purpose happen to mention that Jane’s been getting multiple bouquets from her Boston boyfriend. Cary is peeved.
As mentioned above, Jane’s mom calls and is upset that Jane sent a break-up letter to Neal. Despite my excellent background in reading comprehension (as evidenced by my choice of reading material, obviously) I don’t really get the point she was trying to make. Mama Barrett says Neal is probably interested in other girls too, but he doesn’t write to JANE about THEM. “You cannot disrupt a friendship of such long standing because of a girlish crush.” So … what, Jane should just mess around on the side and not tell Neal? Then Neal’s mom calls Jane and says Neal is coming to Canby Hall for the weekend, and she shouldn’t let him disrupt her plans, but hopefully she’ll have some time to spend with him. He was going to call her himself, but his mom said she would go ahead and do it because she wanted to say hello to Jane anyway. Uh, manipulative much? Normally I have no sympathy for the absurd boy situations these Canby girls get themselves into, but here I’m actually softening. We have now entered crazy town. Clearly aware of this, Jane wishes through the whole book that she could ask her older sister Charlotte for advice, but she never actually writes her a letter or leaves a message when she calls her. Dude, how hard are you trying? It wasn’t THAT hard to get a hold of someone in the ’80s.
Neal’s self-invited visit is to be the same day as the Oakley Prep dance to which Cary has invited Jane. Jane decides to plan a really full day of activities so she and Neal will have no time alone together. Yes, that will definitely work. Also, since writing the letter to Neal obviously didn’t fix the situation, Jane decides to go try and talk to Cary at the diner. He refuses to speak to her.
Then Cary comes to campus. Toby, loyal to Jane, is less than friendly to him. He and Jane finally talk. He complains, “Flowers every ten minutes? How can I compete with that?” Hello? Isn’t Cary a rich Boston blue-blood too? And wouldn’t that also mean he’d understand how involved their families are? He says he isn’t sure how Jane really feels about Neal deep down. He suggests she get a date for Neal for the dance that Saturday and then they can double-date.
Toby reluctantly volunteers to play tennis with Jane and Neal on the upcoming Saturday, but refuses to be said date. Andy similarly refuses, as she is sure Neal won’t want to be seen fraternizing with a person of colour, given how racist she knows everyone around her is.
The day of Neal’s and Faith’s anticipated visits, Maggie barges into 407 with the following statements:
- “I’ll just simply die if I don’t get to see Faith today.”
- “Faith is simply the most wonderful, beautiful, wise, talented person you’ll ever know, after my sister Dana, of course.”
- “Will everyone tell Faith I’m coming and not to leave until I see her?” Toby, muttering: “Everyone will tell her that.” Andy, from bed with her eyes closed: “Two or three times. Now go!” My feelings exactly. I am really starting to hate the former 407 girls, and I know it only gets worse in future books.
So Neal arrives, and the point of this self-imposed visit is totally unclear. Since he wasn’t taking Jane’s no for an answer and was sending her enough flowers to bury her alive, I assumed he was coming to lay claim to his territory, so to speak. But instead he greets her with “Relax, Janie. This is not the end of the world. The end of the world would come if we blew this many years of friendship.” He’s a perfect gentleman the entire time. (Jane wouldn’t let Neal open doors for her in the last book because she was a feminist, but she seems to have forgotten that in this one.) He doesn’t even blink when it turns out Jane has arranged a date for him while she goes to the dance with Cary. What in the world was the point of all this drama if Neal’s going to back down this easily? Why did he get their parents involved? Why was he singlehandedly supporting the Boston floral industry?
Toby is super-nervous about doing well in their friendly tennis game, and even more so when she finds out the fourth in their pairs match is Randy. (How does Jane even know Randy well enough to invite him?) Randy, Neal and Jane are all impressed with how well Toby can play after just a few weeks of lessons. Neal and Toby, of all people, notice each other. In a moment of weakness, Toby tells Jane she’ll be Neal’s date for that night after all. Now Toby is even more nervous, as she’s never been on a date before and has nothing girly to wear. I guess her top hat was at the cleaners’. Anyway, she conveniently remembers that she does have one Neiman-Marcus dress her aunt bought her, which fits her beautifully and turns her into a supermodel. I gotta start shopping there.
Andy is alone in 407 when the sainted Faith finally stops by. Andy takes her to meet up with Maggie, and along the way talks about how racially discriminated against she is, and Faith, truly shocked, tells Andy she must be mistaken and that there is no prejudice in the Garden of Eden that is Canby Hall. Faith knows this for sure because she is also modern and urban (read: African-American, or as they call it, black.) Andy is offended but later thinks about it and realizes that the girl who got the lead really was better than her. Geez, all of that stomping around for nothing? Faith has literally a four-minute encounter with Maggie before heading back to Boston. Not sure how worth it that was. Also, she doesn’t have any other friends on this campus to visit? She’s only been gone like 5 months.
So Toby + Neal, and Jane + Cary, go to the dance, where Cary’s band Ambulance is playing. Toby is now all discombobulated because the only dancing she knows how to do is square dancing, and there is surprisingly little of that going on tonight. She sits out while Jane and Neal dance to every song, exhibiting their perfect upper-class dance training. I don’t know about you, but while there wasn’t a lot of square dancing going on at my high school dances, there also wasn’t a lot of ballroom dancing. But that’s just me. Cary gets jealous and again isn’t speaking to Jane, so she arranges a taxi ride home. Neal is as nice as can be about everything, and she wonders why she’s so hung up on rude, immature Cary when Neal is so thoughtful and gentlemanly. (You and me both, Toots.) Later, Jane’s mother writes that Neal was very taken with Toby and that Jane should bring Toby home so Jane’s parents can meet her. Just like that, Jane’s mother’s dreams of her daughter’s marriage to Neal are over? I just don’t get these people.
When Jane gets home, she goes up to see Alison, and smells popcorn coming from Dee’s room. Using a hot plate or popcorn maker is strictly forbidden in the dorms due to the old wiring. Alison also smells the popcorn and, thinking it’s coming from the kitchen, suggests they invite themselves over. Jane realizes that Dee is about to get in big trouble (well, as big as trouble gets at Canby Hall, which I think we’ve established is not very.) The following is a transcript of Jane’s tortured thoughts:
“Dee wasn’t bad, she was just restless. The possible punishments Dee could get tumbled through Jane’s head. [Note from me: Punishments such as ... what, exactly? A snide remark from PA? A stern glance?] It wasn’t right. Dee couldn’t help being herself and she shouldn’t have to get in real trouble over it!” That is the biggest stretch of a justification I’ve ever heard. Risking a fire that could actually maim or kill a bunch of other students is just “being herself”? Man, O.J. really was framed!
Jane becomes a whirling dervish as she tries to prevent Alison from coming downstairs while simultaneously getting the congregated girls to move their party from the forbidden dorm room to the allowed kitchen, finishing up her frantic machinations by spraying perfume all over the hallway to mask the popcorn smell. Toby goes upstairs to stall Alison by suggesting she bring her cat to the popcorn party. Alison: “Toby, you are not yourself tonight.” Toby, wilting: “I guess I’m not. It’s been a really strange evening. You do realize that was my first date. And my first dance.” Alison: “Just because you had a strange evening, you think I should have one too?”
Now that Andy has realized the world is not against her and the chip on her shoulder has gone back to its Pringles can, she’s dancing like an angel at every practice. She gets applause every time she rehearses her solo (members of the chorus have solos?), and the clapping starts up in the rafters. She soon realizes that it’s coming from the lighting guy, an Oakley Prep boy named Matt.
Randy tells Toby he thinks she should try out for the tennis team. Not that he thinks she’ll make it, but it’ll introduce her to the other players, who will want to play with her, which will make her better in time for next year’s tryouts. His plan works to a tee and there’s really nothing else to say about that.
The day of the dress rehearsal, someone sends Andy expensive French chocolates addressed “To the secret star.” The dress rehearsal, which everyone but Toby attends, is a smashing success (which back in my drama club days was a bad omen, but nonetheless) and Andy is the breakout star. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the French-chocolate sender was Matt. Even more unsurprisingly, Matt has “glowing dark skin.” Whew, we are once again safe from the threat of interracial romance! He walks her home. Love will soon bloom!
Even Cary attends the dress rehearsal, having had sense talked into him by Dee, who realized that Jane was a good person when she saved Dee’s skin even though Dee had been beating up on her throughout the book for her waffling over the titular Two-Boy situation. (Got that?) He and Jane talk, and he says he realizes Neal would be a jerk not to fight for a girl as great as her (but Neal isn’t fighting for her, he’s moved on to Toby, hasn’t he?) and that he, Cary, would fight for her too. But they don’t really clear up what their status is now. Whatever, we’re supposed to understand they’re together again, OK?
When everyone gets back to the dorm after the performance, it turns out that the reason Toby couldn’t attend was not because she was catching up on all the work she neglected during her tennis frenzy, but because she was planning her own surprise party. At least, it was a surprise for everyone else, since no one knew it was her birthday that day. The book ends in this entirely un-cringeworthy way:
“Happy birthday, October,” Andy said.
“Happy birthday, Toby,” Jane said.
“Happy birthday to friendship,” Toby whispered.
(If I roll my eyes any harder I’m going to rupture something.)
The only funny random line I want to include, said by Andy after Jane the slob entered their room and dropped Cary’s coat on the floor: “For anyone else, dropping that jacket might have significance. For Jane, it means she got warm. The audience needs clearer signals to understand how 407’s private soap opera is progressing.” Count me in on that audience, Andrea. Count me in.
Remember how YA series always had Super Specials, extra books that were kind of separate from the series’ regular story arc, were longer than usual, and usually centred around some special event? Well buckle your seatbelts, friends, because next up is Canby Hall’s very first (of two) Super Editions. Alison’s getting hitched, y’all! See you there!