First of all, Shelley looks about 35. Also, both she and her kidnapper look like they’re trying not to laugh. Maybe they read this book.
I don’t know how ghostwriting works, but this strikes me as having been written by someone who got assigned a Canby Hall novel but had her heart set on being the next Grisham/Baldacci, so she tried to scratch her suspense-fiction-writing itch by producing this book. It’s so out of place in a teen girls’ series that starts out being about regular school life and, I assure you, quickly goes back to being about regular school life. They just take this one detour into the world of international crime, and pretty much never mention it again. So odd.
So basically, Shelley is kidnapped by art thieves who mistake her for Casey and want to prevent Casey’s parents from testifying against them at some federal art trial. This case of mistaken identity is made possible by the fact that Casey has recently started dressing and doing her hair like Shelley, and by the fact that Shelley is conveniently carrying no ID at the time she is snatched. Seriously, does anyone ever leave home without ID? I am paranoid that I’ll get hit by a car and admitted to the hospital as “Jane Doe #47” if I don’t have my license on me. Is that just me? And talk about suspension of disbelief, why would a supposedly rich girl like Casey ever start copying the look of the country hick they keep telling us Shelley is? To quote Faith, “One loses one’s mittens. One can even lose a reputation. One does not lose a slightly overweight but nonetheless adorable roommate like our Shelley.” Geez, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Girlfriend probably ran away.
Our friendly ghostwriters never lose much sleep over maintaining continuity, as Casey, who in other books is portrayed as the roommates’ fourth Musketeer, is pretty much a loudmouthed brat throughout this story. Also, Faith’s sister went to Georgetown in the last book but now is a student at George Washington. Because all those D.C. schools are the same, you know! It’s because of this book that, for the longest time, I thought “Georgetown” was GWU’s nickname. (That may say more about me than about the book, but nevertheless.)
So Shelley is held hostage in a sawmill, she manages to get a few murky clues across in a telephone call, and Dana and Faith naturally figure out where she’s being held. I’m amazed at the expertise these fifteen-year-olds have when it comes to mills, by the way. If it were me, those clues would have sailed right over my head. Guess we had a different collective knowledge base back in 1983. So they decide to sneak out and go find her by themselves. The lamest of excuses is given for two tenth-graders not to tell, oh, say, THE FBI AGENTS investigating this case: that the authorities wouldn’t take them seriously. Really? Even though police officers always tell you to tell them anything you remember, no matter how seemingly insignificant, because it could be helpful? Well in the end the FBI agents tell the girls they could never have cracked the case without them, that they would have thought the clues “too whimsical to follow up on,” so I guess the joke’s on me. So anyway, D and F sneak out of Baker House for the weekend, which is, for now, guarded by some staff member named Mrs. Betts – someone who will soon have vanished from this series faster than Dana dons designer outfits. Anyway, they drive all over the state in a snowstorm (with Bret as their driver — he’s a completely normal, accommodating boyfriend all of a sudden instead of his previous lyin’ cheatin’ self), find the mill, get chased by the bad guys, Dana falls into a frozen pond but miraculously avoids hypothermia, Bret crashes into a snowplow, and somehow the day (and Shelley) is saved. Meanwhile, her poor parents, who fly in from Iowa when she goes missing, get zero face time in this whole book. And there is never once the suggestion that perhaps Shelley ought to think about going home. If you were from a small town and sent your kid to a boarding school out of state, and she got herself kidnapped within days of returning after Christmas break, wouldn’t you be transferring her out of there faster than she could say “baggy pleated jeans“? I guess Shelley’s parents knew this series was just getting started.
As an aside, this book has more lush descriptions of eating than any book in the entire series. Sample passage, referencing a box of sandwiches: “They were made on homemade bread spread thickly with butter. There was almost more sliced roasted chicken in hers than Faith could get her mouth around. The chicken tasted like home, faintly perfumed with sage and onion as if it had been bursting with stuffing at least once in its history.” Which begs the question, who stuffs the same chicken twice?
Anyway, the book ends with Dana getting a birthday cake with four candles on it since her 16th birthday is February 29. Though her birthday will magically jump to August just before graduation.
Really, this was impossible to take seriously. I did get one thing out of this, though — the solution to this country’s war on crime. What we need is more high schoolers showing that bumbling FBI how it’s done. Somebody write a memo.
UPDATE: Apparently Courteney Cox was the model for Shelley on this cover! She actually name-drops this book in that article! Ironic because not only does the face not look anything like Courteney Cox, it doesn’t look particularly afraid either. And yet this is what taught a future star how to act. Monica Geller, what humble beginnings you had.