Evidently Laura Lee was deemed unsuitable as a long-term reincarnation of the Old 407 Girls’ sidekick, Casey. I can only assume that this is because the publishers were prejudiced against cardiac patients. So here comes their next attempt. Also, Jane is really kind of a crummy person again, though not nearly as insufferable as back when she was a carnie.
About this cover. Penny looks appropriately sweet and gosh-darn about it all, and Jane looks great. For once she looks pretty instead of vaguely equine, as on several other covers. But why is Andy lying on the floor and grinning? Why is she surrounded by books instead of a broken care package? And why is Toby smirking in the background like some kind of evil overlord whose puppets are performing exactly as she wants them to?
So the book opens with Andy struggling through the hall with yet another massive care package from home while girls around her are moving their belongings into Baker House. Apparently the storm that ended the last book hit Charles House worse than Baker, and since it was so close to the end of the year, the board decided to relocate those girls and do the repairs over the summer. First of all, if they have that many empty rooms sitting unoccupied in Baker, why do they HAVE three dorms in the first place? And does it really make sense to leave broken windows, etc. unrepaired until summer? Wouldn’t moisture and insects cause even more damage in the meantime? And there are still three full books, including this one, until the end of the year, so … summer’s not that close, is all I’m saying. (If there are any private school boards who are hiring out there, I guess I’m probably your woman.)
Anyway, so Andy runs smack-dab into a new girl, and they and the package go flying. The girl is a Southern belle named Penny Vanderark. Andy offers her a cookie from the food that’s now lying everywhere. It is noted that Penny had noticed Andy in class before because of the “great-looking clothes Andrea always seemed to be wearing. Today was no exception. She had on a cotton sweater of soft pink and turquoise with pink sweatpants and matching turquoise socks that folded down neatly over her Reeboks.” So basically, she was wearing a sweatsuit. I’m pretty sure my first-grader has that exact same outfit.
So Andy and Penny get to chatting and Penny helps Andy carry her broken box to 407. By “helps,” I mean Penny picks up two items while Andy carries the rest. It seems our new friend Penny is a little on the helpless side. In 407, Penny takes a gander at the unusual decorating scheme (remember, Andy’s third is decorated in earth tones, Toby’s is decorated in rainbows, and Jane’s is decorated in filth.) She notices the tea bag hanging over Toby’s bed and thinks, “Surely, it had to be some kind of potpourri.” I laugh out loud.
Andy then helps Penny carry her stuff over to her new room, which Andy discovers is a huge mess. Penny laments that her mother isn’t there to get her room straightened up, because she’s really good at telling the maid what to do. Penny muses that that’s a skill she’ll probably need to learn so that she can run her husband’s house one day. In terms of who that husband will be, well, once she’s in college she’ll really start looking. Andy helps Penny start to organize and unpack, but Penny is useless at folding and not much less useless at anything else. Andy thinks that Penny makes wealthy spoiled Jane look neat and self-sufficient.
Andy returns to her room to find her roommates trying to covertly break into her care package. They head out to meet Penny for dinner, and Andy mentions that Toby will probably like her because Penny is “from the South. Just like you.” Toby finds this characterization irritating and realizes that Penny is likely a Southern belle. She tells her roommates that Texas doesn’t cultivate the whole Southern-belle idea like some other southern states do. I beg to differ. Toby and Jane finally meet Penny, and we are treated to some ominous descriptions of Toby’s inner thoughts. Basically, she’s met girls like Penny before and will have to warn her roommates about her later. Since Penny may be shallow but is basically a nice person, this always seemed a little melodramatic to me.
Penny displays what will become her signature talent: telling funny stories about herself. She regales the roommates with a tale about how a senior student tricked her into walking into the headmistress PA’s house, thinking it was the library. When discovered by PA, she simply started crying, because “that always works with my family.” Penny and PA end up having tea. Andy says she’s a celebrity because not many students have had tea with PA. Liar! My goodness, after all these recaps, I’d like to find out what student HASN’T spent time chillaxing in PA’s living room.
They end up eating with Dee and Maggie, and Penny charms all of them with the notable exception of Toby. Penny tells more stories, including one of her going missing in a store as a toddler because she loved to make funny faces at herself in the mirror. Toby thinks to herself darkly that Penny probably still does that in her spare time. Back in their room, Toby tells Andy and Jane that she thinks Penny’s an airhead. A and J don’t understand Toby at all. Meredith (now a perfectly normal housemother, after the girls of 407 taught her everything she knows), stops by to tell them that PA is having an important meeting at 10 the next morning and that she specifically asked that the girls of 407 be there. The girls even wonder among themselves why PA would ask for them, since they’re only sophomores, but they are not privy to the knowledge we have, which is that the world revolves around Room 407.
The mysterious meeting at PA’s turns out to be about the upcoming Open House. PA wants to showcase the amazing friendships that are formed at Canby Hall (not just the “excellent academics,” which, come on people, is common knowledge) so she has handpicked sets of friends among the student body to be guides for the interested students who will be visiting that weekend. She wants these newly-minted guides to write letters (!) of introduction to their assigned students and to plan a fun activity for them that’s typical of a Canby Hall Saturday night. Toby, Andy and Jane bicker over what they each consider fun, then decide to come up with a couple of options, write to their charges, and let them choose.
We cut to Andy letting loose in the dance studio and Penny coming in, immediately impressed, as everyone must be at all times, by Andy’s talent. She mentions that Jane was helping her unpack, which Andy notes to herself must have been like the blind leading the blind. I think it’s entirely possible that, between the two of them, Jane and Penny gave up and started putting items back in boxes. But never mind. As Andy and Penny leave the studio, they start talking about Andy’s lifelong dream of being a professional dancer. Penny says she has no determination or talent that would help her achieve a dream but, as it happens, that works out fine because she has no dreams either. Andy is incredulous and says there must be something Penny wants out of life. Penny says that of course there is. She wants to get married. Andy wants to know why Penny came to Canby Hall. Penny says her father sent her there so she could get into a good Ivy League school … so that she could find the right husband.
My head, it aches so.
Andy gets righteously frustrated, telling Penny that she’s got to have dreams. What does she really want? Penny gets upset, saying it would be different if she had some special skill, but she doesn’t. (Besides, “I hate the sight of blood, so med school is out.” YES, BECAUSE THAT’S THE ONLY REASON.) Then she asks what’s wrong with wanting some guy to take care of her. Why should she work all day when someone else can do it for her and she can golf and play tennis and go to the movies with her friends?
Is this a joke, people? Are there really people who do this? Why do their spouses allow it? I am not including stay-at-home parents in this scenario, because they’re working harder than anyone. But people without kids, or who have a staff taking care of their kids? If they’re not holding down a job, shouldn’t they be doing something with their time to benefit others?
Andy gives up and parts ways with Penny. Back in 407, she finds Jane engrossed in a piece of writing. She notes that Jane has also led a privileged life but still knows the meaning of working hard to achieve a dream. Jane mentions that she is working on her submission for the Canby Hall Journal, an apparently very elite and exclusive annual publication for which she is desperately hoping to be chosen. This will not in any way become a source of contention later on.
A letter comes from April, one of the girls they’ll be hosting for Open House weekend. It’s addressed to Toby, so Andy and Penny decide to head over to Randy’s ranch to meet Toby and have her open it. Penny (whose room is still a disaster zone) puts on white running shoes. Andy tells her she might want to wear something different, as the orchard will be muddy, and Penny says it’s no problem. If they get muddy, she’ll just send them home to her mom to clean up for her. Just kidding! She’ll stick them in the closet until she can take them home herself. She wouldn’t send muddy shoes through the mail. She’s not an animal.
Penny tells more self-deprecating stories about herself. At the ranch, Randy rides up, looking “like a model for a Marlboro billboard,” which I guess is supposed to be a good thing. Penny is immediately interested and Toby is immediately annoyed. Randy asks if she wants to ride a horse, and Penny demurs. How could she ever ride something so big? She quickly changes her tune when Randy shows signs of giving up, though, and simpers that she could consider trying horseback riding if Randy’s big strong self was there to help. Toby settles back to watch the charade. As Penny attempts to mount the horse, she expertly puts her left foot in the saddle, grips the mane with her left hand, and the saddle horn with her right. She then makes a lame attempt to hoist herself up and falls to the ground in a heap, giggling that she has no idea what she’s doing. Toby instantly realizes that Penny has ridden before, because an amateur would have held the saddle with both hands. (This was lost on me, but I trust Texas Toby.) Randy doesn’t notice the deception, and he and Penny have a grand old time while Toby cleans up her horse and fumes. By the time the girls leave to get back to Canby Hall, Randy seems hooked by their new Southern friend.
That night they read the letter from April, who puts the ball back into their court. Penny comes by and suggests that they simply go into Greenleaf for burgers and a movie, since that’s a typical Canby Saturday night. This idea is hailed as genius. Andy invites Penny to join them on their Open House hosting duties. Toby, blood boiling at having to share Randy and now her roommates with Penny, makes it clear she doesn’t want Penny along. Penny quickly retreats to her room, and Andy and Jane turn on Toby, asking why she’s being so cruel and saying she must be jealous. Toby responds that Penny may be as dumb as she looks, but not as helpless, and storms out of the room.
After some reflection, Toby decides to keep her mouth shut and let Penny goof up on her own again, hopefully showing the others that she’s an impostor in the process. Upon returning to the room, she finds out that Jane has been invited to an Ambulance performance by Cary, and she asks Andy and Toby to join them. To make up, Toby suggests inviting Penny as well. Andy is thrilled.
At the gig the next night, despite claiming to have two left feet, Penny spends the entire evening dancing. Her helpless Southern belle schtick has guys falling all over her. Toby is silently infuriated as she watches Penny bat her eyes at all of them and wonders why no one else can see through their resident Georgia peach.
Cut to English class however many days later, which apparently all three 407 girls plus Penny take together. If they’re in a class together, how is it that Andy and Penny didn’t know each other at the time of their fateful hallway collision? High school classes don’t usually have more than 30 people, and I’m betting at a single-sex private school the classes are even smaller. Anyway, the teacher starts reading aloud one of the best short stories submitted for a recent assignment. Andy assumes the story must be Jane’s, since she’s the best writer in the class. But it isn’t. The story is a hilarious one that has the whole class laughing. Turns out the author is Penny.
After class, Andy corrals Penny and is losing her mind over Penny’s newly discovered writing talent. This is it! This is what Penny’s ambition should be! Penny isn’t buying the enthusiasm. What she writes might be OK for a tenth-grade English class, but no one else would want to read it. Andy challenges her to submit the story to the Canby Hall Journal, which Penny has never heard of. Jane is not happy that Andy is encouraging Penny to compete for what has been Jane’s dream for her entire life, or at least since this book began.
Andy will not let this go. She says that Penny can actually go to college with a purpose now and make something of herself. Penny smiles and says she already knows what her purpose will be: to get her MRS degree. (I did not get this antiquated reference as a child and, now, have trouble believing women actually said this as late as the ’80s.) Andy asks why Penny won’t share her writing with others. Penny says other people can write their own stories. Andy says most people don’t have the talent to do that. Penny hands her paper to Andy and says there, now she’s shared. She appreciates Andy’s efforts, but she has no interest in a career. She “could never make it on [her] own.” Man, I’m all for marriage, but if my daughter ever acts this helpless, somebody shake us both.
Andy, with all the insight of a concrete block, decides that since Penny has given her the story, Andy will submit it to the Canby Hall Journal for her. (Because that will go over well.) Jane doesn’t think it’s a good idea because Penny’s reticence stems from fear that people won’t like her writing and then will stop liking her, and Penny cares deeply about what other people think, as evidenced by her letting her parents run her life completely. Andy responds that they all listen to their parents but then go ahead and do what they think is best. (They’re FIFTEEN! I roll my eyes.) Jane reads the story again, is reminded that it’s great and makes her own writing seem flat, and is jealous of Penny and the threat that she has revealed herself to be. Andy ends up secretly submitting Penny’s manuscript (leaving it on top of the office’s typewriters, hee!) to the journal.
Later, the girls are trying to work on their English papers. Toby crumples a draft up and tosses it into the trash can, and Jane says she can’t concentrate on work while Toby is busy imitating Willie Mays. Toby informs her (and me) that Willie Mays played baseball, not basketball. Jane (and I) could hardly care less. Toby takes a walk to clear her head and ends up passing Penny’s room. When Penny sees her, she invites her in and promptly takes a comic tumble out of bed, pulling her sheets and books to the ground with her. She and Toby talk, and when Toby mentions what a good writer Penny is, our Southern debutante seems genuinely perturbed. Toby can’t figure out why Penny doesn’t mind being the centre of attention when she’s making a fool of herself, but is mortified when receiving true admiration. Nonetheless, for the first time, Toby kind of likes Penny and feels they might be able to be friends.
Jane then gets a call from Cary, who tells her his band Ambulance just got tapped for a private gig at the Westfield Inn, apparently the nicest place around although we’ve never heard of it. What happened to Alison’s wedding venue, the Greenleaf Inn? Anyway, Cary wants Jane to come see his “first big break” (what an optimist, that Cary!) but the problem is it’s on Saturday night, the night of the Open House, and he can’t invite the whole Canby gang. Jane morphs into her sometimes-selfish self and decides she can’t turn down a glamorous night and an awesome meal (this private party’s going to pay for HER dinner?) even if it means ditching her friends, so she says yes.
Andy and Toby are furious that Jane is backing out of their plans just because she got a better offer. Jane can’t explain herself, gets mad, and decides they’re just jealous because they don’t have boyfriends. (Yes, that’s definitely it.) She starts writing her English paper about how friends “don’t judge you for doing something you really want to do even if it means going against what they want,” and decides to leave it lying around for her roommates to see. Oh, Jane, maturity is still your middle name.
Things are tense between the 407 girls as Jane refuses to change her mind in the morning. (In her words, if she went with Cary, she could lose her best friends, but if she went with them, she would “miss the chance of a lifetime.” Look, this magical inn isn’t even in Boston. I cannot believe that the worldly and wealthy Jane would care about this backwoods venue, or that she doesn’t have a million more fancy dinners in her future.) Andy and Toby replace her with Penny in their Open House plans.
Friday afternoon there’s a final assembly to discuss the Open House. Jane, alternating between guilt over her defection and annoyance at the others’ anger, decides it’s ridiculous that the whole school is in an uproar over a dumb Open House. You and me both, Janie!
The next day is the long-awaited Saturday. Andy and Toby privately agree to go easy on Jane for the sake of showing the prospective students some good Canby Hall friendships. They stop by Penny’s room, where she’s overslept because she didn’t set her alarm clock correctly. Her hair is perfect though, and it’s implied that she faked the whole thing for another laugh at her expense.
Open House starts and our heroines meet up with their assigned charges, April and Jennie. (The ghostwriter couldn’t have come up with two names that didn’t start with two of the initials of the 407 girls? This makes skimming very challenging, people.) Andy is, incidentally, noted to wear a size 5 shoe. Those are some tiny dancin’ feet. Anyway, they start with a lecture on Canby Hall history by PA, then a tour of the campus, then lunch at the dining hall which is, thankfully, boxed sandwiches and ice cream sundaes, thus prolonging the visitors’ ignorance of the true nature of the questionable culinary offerings at this venerable institution. They then participate in a huge game of baseball. (I would have promptly decided against this school if they made me do this on a prospective visit there.) Penny is pretty bad but Jane is worse, as she points out that attempting to catch the other team’s balls could damage a fingernail. She does hit one ball while at bat, though, by using the novel technique of keeping her eyes open. Later, Penny thanks Toby, one of the team captains, for not leaving her to be the last one picked. Toby thinks again that maybe she could like Penny. (Foreshadowing for when Penny does snag the coveted role of Casey Flint 2.0.)
Back in the room, April and Jennie are told that Jane will not be joining them that night. As Jane gets embarrassed, Penny breaks the tension by telling a long story about her first dance, when she wore a too-big outfit and ended up losing her skirt while dancing with her crush. Everyone cracks up. Jane realizes that the whole day has been fun and that she’s jealous she’ll be missing out on the evening. She excuses herself to call Cary, hoping he’ll break their date. But no such luck — he’ll be there to pick her up soon.
After all the girls leave for Pizza Pete’s, Jane suddenly and finally has the epiphany that it was wrong to cancel her plans with her friends. She puts on shorts and a polo, as well as pigtails (!) and goes down to meet Cary. When he arrives and expresses surprise that she would go to Buckingham Palace THE WESTFIELD INN dressed like that, she tells him that that’s just it — she’s not going to the Westfield Inn after all. Cary is understandably upset — why is it OK to break plans with him? I can’t say I blame him, since logic is not entirely Jane’s strong suit. I mean at this point the damage is done, why hurt him too? Anyway, he zooms off into the night and Jane dashes to Pizza Pete’s just in time to join the gang.
The next morning, the 407 girls are at chapel. As an aside, this is a very rarely-mentioned activity at Canby. I don’t know when the visiting students (all of whom are in high school and traveled long distances, remember) were packed off — probably on a Greyhound at 1 AM. Anyway, the student body is invited to an open house at PA’s house as a gesture of appreciation. Toby heads over to Randy’s for a ride first, and Randy waxes poetic about how he’ll miss her over the summer. I guess his paying attention to Penny is forgiven. Then it’s off to PA’s shindig where the headmistress babbles on about the importance of friendship, striking a chord in the soul of Jane, who realizes that now she truly knows what friendship is about. Until the next book, that is. Anyway, back at the dorm, Cary shows up to tell Jane that he was ticked at her, but then he thought about it and now he knows where she was coming from. How convenient!
The next day in English class, the teacher starts reading another “exceptional” essay. Toby is in physical pain from the boredom. “She really couldn’t understand why Ms. Gardner got such a kick out of reading these stupid essays to the whole class. She could understand if the woman liked to read them to herself, after all, she assigned them, she must like to read them. But why make the whole class suffer through it with her?” In this case, I couldn’t agree more, Tobes. The essay goes on in barely-sixth-grade prose about how the writer learned that she shouldn’t ditch her friends for a boy, and Toby realizes the essay is Jane’s. Whoop-de-doo. (Actually they all have a much bigger reaction but I’m no good at faking. I can’t believe that was the best writing turned in for that assignment.)
Jane’s and Penny’s pieces both get accepted to the Canby Hall Journal. Jane is ecstatic but Penny is furious at Andy for submitting the story without her knowledge. Andy can’t understand her reaction. Penny says the editors want to meet with her about some changes, and what if she can’t do them? She’s going to go over there and tell them the submission was a mistake. Toby pipes up that Andy sure did make a mistake: the mistake of thinking that Penny wanted to be anything other than cute. Texas Toby then tells Penny what she’s been dying to say for weeks: that she knows Penny faked being unable to ride horses. Penny runs out of the room.
Andy goes after her and they have a heart-to-heart in which Penny shares her fears that she won’t be able to make the changes the editors want. It turns out that she has ambition after all: she has actually always wanted to be a writer, but was afraid she wasn’t good enough. Now she doesn’t want to find out if she’s good enough or not. Andy tells her if she wants to keep her dreams packed away instead of trying to make them come true, maybe she really does need someone to take care of her.
Then we are subjected to some internal Penny struggles in which she muses that she always thought she knew what she wanted, a marriage to a nice boy, but then she met all these girls with lofty career goals and started wondering if she wanted something more too. So which is it Penny, you always wanted to write or you just realized it two weeks ago? We are also told that Penny never realized she was putting on a helpless act until Toby said so. That is some miraculous self-delusion there. I feel like we could make a fortune bottling that up and selling it to, say, struggling cults.
The next day Penny goes to the journalism office, where the teacher outlines the changes they want to make. Penny realizes she doesn’t agree and that, if they change her story, it won’t be her story anymore. Uh, editing is an important part of the publishing process. Does she think all books are just sent to the presses exactly the way the authors submitted them? (Actually, that could explain this entire series.) So she gathers up her skimpy courage for the first time in her little Southern life and tells the editor that that’s the way she wants it to stay. As she’s leaving, the teacher calls after that they’ll reconsider because her story really belongs in the journal.
Penny finds the 407 girls and excitedly tells them that she stood up for what she believed in for the first time ever, that she actually knew she was right, and that she knew that if they didn’t want to print her story the way she wrote it, then she didn’t want them to print it at all. (But I thought you didn’t want them to print it at all whether they changed it or not. FOR THE LOVE OF LITERATURE, WHICH IS IT?) Andy is proud of her. Penny says her next story idea is about a girl from Texas who’s the only one who can see people as they really are. Oh come on. I like Toby, but she’s not so much particularly insightful as she is surrounded by dense doorknobs who make her look like a genius. Anyway, they all go into Baker House, and we are told that “No one looking at the quiet campus on that late spring afternoon would ever have believed the dreams that were being born, and the excitement that was exploding, behind those closed doors.” I guess I’ll take your word for it, ghostwriter. Actually, the writer of this book was Lynn Zednick, and now that I Google her, it seems the TV show Glee was based on a Texas teacher named Lynn Zednick Shaw. Is it the same person? Can anyone out there confirm this?
– It is noted that when Jane invited Andy and Toby to her family’s Barrett Landing Party, Andy had joked that her ancestors had arrived in a big ship too — they’d just been riding below deck. I totally did not get this when I was a kid, but now I think Andy’s kind of awesome. Of course Jane does not find this funny because her family’s ancestry is very important to her. I would think she should maybe not find it funny because her ancestors were probably the slave owners, but tomato tomahto.
– When their English teacher assigns the “Friendships I Have Known” topic for their next paper, Toby thinks to herself that the teacher “had about as much imagination as her horse Max when it came to selecting topics. Then she reconsidered. If given a chance, and having the ability to write it down, Max might even come up with something better.” Hee!
Next up is a Very Special Episode: the very first Canby Hall book I ever read. Royalty is taking notice of the finest boarding school in the land the town of Greenleaf! See you then, friends!