Sociopathy is Not Scary, Just Mildly Annoying … or, Canby Hall #7, Four Is A Crowd


This is the first time they come right out and say Dana is supposed to be one of the best-looking girls in the school, but from this cover, I’m not buying it. And we are supposed to believe the haughty chick with the prim pink turtleneck and skirt — and brown purse strap — is a Hollywood hottie. I call BS.

I always loved the second set of Canby Hall roommates much more, and therefore owned and repeatedly reread nearly all of the later books in the series which were about them, so some of these Dana/Faith/Shelley ones I genuinely don’t remember. But what I have long suspected has been proven in this one: Shelley has the intelligence and social maturity of a kidney bean. Which is an insult to legumes everywhere.

So the girls are back at Canby Hall for their junior year of high school. Somehow there were a few extra weeks between Faith’s late-summer brush with death and their return to school, so these kids live in a world where July and August are like four months long. Anyway, the big buzz around campus is that the daughter of famous Hollywood movie star Yvonne Young is transferring to Canby Hall. We are shown that said daughter, Pamela Young, is a big deal because she shows up in a limo with servants and has personal electronics and matching baby-blue luggage. (The limo has California plates — this rich kid drove cross-country instead of just catching a flight?) And also because she name-drops big Hollywood actors like Joan Collins and Timothy Hutton. Hee hee! She also talked about Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson though, as well as Matt Dillon who I guess is still around, so that made this book feel not quite so old.

Clearly, the publishers decided that this series needed a villain, so enter Pamela. She’s blonde and super-glamorous, which is usually suspicious in this world to begin with. She’s everything else you’d expect a stereotypical teen novel adversary to be: selfish, snobby, arrogant, condescending, etc. She demands a single room, whines about being separated from her Jaguar, brags about her Hollywood connections, and so on. But the ghostwriter takes it one step further, and I kind of admire their nerve: when Shelley has breakfast with Pamela the first day and Faith comes up to the table, Pamela assumes Faith is a servant and tells her to clear the dishes. Faith is furious and Pamela is unashamed when corrected, saying, “Oh, well she must be used to people making that mistake.” What a bee-yotch! The truly infuriating thing about this scene, though, is that Shelley continues to hang out with Pamela. Who was just openly racist to her best friend. Shelley even lies to Faith and tells her she told Pamela off for it. Pamela does a bunch of other really crappy things to other girls, but this thing with Faith was the worst, because there’s a difference between brattiness and unrepentant prejudice. And this made me loathe Shelley more than I did Pamela, because I assume if you’re a sociopath you don’t know any other way to be, but if Shelley is supposed to be a non-sociopath, she is particularly scummy to tolerate this treatment of her friends because of the off-chance that she might get to visit Pamela’s house in Hollywood. That is way too much thought I just put into this dime-store novel.

So Pamela alienates everyone on campus except Stupid Star-Struck Shelley (SSSS), but our kidney bean’s big dumb eyes are opened once Pamela does something bad to her: she makes a play for SSSS’s boy-toy Tom. Ah, now SSSS sees what everyone was trying to tell her! Being a racist is one thing, but flirting with the guy you’re cheating on your hometown boyfriend with is really over the line! So Shelley and Tom ditch Pamela at the restaurant, and we all know you don’t incite the ire of the resident mean girl. Because now Pamela declares secret war on the girls of 407, and strange things start happening. An unkind letter appears in the typewriter on Faith’s desk, and Dana and Shelley are insulted while Faith insists she didn’t write it. Faith gets a phone message from Shelley to meet her, forcing Faith to miss Johnny’s birthday, but Shelley didn’t make the call. The girls fail their weekly room inspection because someone mysteriously messed up their room after it was cleaned, but Faith and Shelley assume Dana never cleaned it in the first place. (Why do these dorm rooms not have locks?) What’s amazing is that these supposed inseparable best friends forever (before the term BFF was part of our global vocabulary) are so quick to believe the worst and turn on each other. Dana even makes the prescient comment “There’s been trouble in 407 before and I suppose there’ll be trouble again.” Well, until this publisher’s contract runs out, at least!

The B-story is that the aloof and intimidating headmistress Patrice Allardyce is finally given a personal life. The girls see her with a twenty-something blond hunk, first in her house, then hiking in the mountains, and each time they’re in the midst of some emotional meltdown. PA is crying, he has his hands on her shoulders, then they’re running after each other … it’s all very Young and the Restless and melodramatic. Naturally they’re intrigued, so Dana and Casey decide to spy on PA to find out about her mad love affair. Now, I can totally understand the fascination with the private lives of figures of authority. My friend Ollie and I in college, and Sandy and I in elementary and high school, used to make up elaborate backstories for our teachers and professors and went gaga whenever they revealed any tidbit of personal information to us in class. But even we, with our questionable social boundaries, would have thought setting up a telescope on the dorm roof and hiding in the headmistress’ bushes were a bit much. Anyway, Stupid Star-Struck Shelley blabs this scheme to Pamela, who tattles on Dana and Casey. They get in big trouble and Dana says it’s a first getting summoned to the headmistress’ house, even though you and I know this happened to Faith and Casey in book #1. Whatevs. PA actually makes a good point when she says that teens think this kind of thing is funny, a cute schoolgirl prank, but they’d be outraged at the invasion of privacy if she did it to them. Too true, PA. But then she validates their behaviour by giving them some random social restriction punishment and introducing them to the blond hunk, who turns out to be her kid brother. Turns out he was in jail and she couldn’t tell anyone because it would hurt her career as a hotshot private school headmistress, but now he’s gone straight, as evidenced by his new job as a mechanic in town. (I’m calling it now that despite becoming a Greenleaf resident we will never hear from Baby Bro Allardyce again.) OK great, PA is a human with problems just like the rest of us, but without the sense not to go all over town rehashing them in public.

Anyway so the girls figure out Pamela was behind all the shenanigans and decide to exact revenge. They send her messages ostensibly from Bret. (Oh yeah, she’s been dating Bret and rubbing it in Dana’s face, and he’s been doing his usual thing and seeing someone else behind Pamela’s back even though you’d think he’d want to suck up to her to milk her Hollywoodness for all it was worth.) The messages send her running all over campus and eventually sitting in the middle of the woods with a huge romantic picnic waiting for Lover-Boy Bret, who of course never shows because he never knew anything about this in the first place. Pamela figures out the 407 girls were behind it and ends the book with a threat: that she isn’t finished with them yet. This is more a threat to us the readers though, because it means we’re going to see a lot more of this criminal-behaviour-treated-like-regular-school-hijinks before this series is through.

And now for my patented end-of-blog-entry random thoughts:

– Were people less sensitive about their weight in the ’80s? When Shelley arrives back at school after summer break, she says she’s going to miss her mother’s cooking, to which Dana replies “Yes, we can see it was delicious,” implying that Shelley’s gained some obvious chub. Now if Pamela said that, it’d be an example of her malicious soul, but sainted Dana can do no wrong?

– When the girls are discussing how it’s not OK for Pamela to look down on others just because her mom is famous, Dana makes the sage comment that she, Dana, is better-dressed than the other girls because her mom is a fashion buyer, but she doesn’t think it makes her better than anyone else. The girl IS a saint! (Interestingly, Dana’s little sister Maggie, who is a prominent character in the later books, is never held up as a fashion icon as far as I recall. But we can all understand that’s probably because she wears glasses.)

– At one point Dana is blow-drying her hair early on a Saturday morning, and another girl comes in and asks her to stop because she’s trying to sleep. So Dana leaves for the day with wet hair. Not to reveal the crusty old curmudgeon I secretly am (these damned kids these days!) but that would NEVER HAPPEN TODAY. One person would never think about the inconvenience of their actions for someone else. They would just think about their God-given right to bouncy hair. Seriously, did you hear that awful story about the girl who stabbed her roommate to death over a fight about an iPod? I really do think the world has changed in this respect. It’s all about us, never about anyone else. Makes me sad. Guess I should be glad we have Canby Hall to remind us of what once was.

– The girls paint their room black. Seriously. And that’s all I have to say about that.


8 responses »

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  5. Enter Pamela! I always kind of enjoyed Pamela’s character though. She was fun to hate, creatively awful, and made a much better mean girl than her successor Gigi Norton. That comment to Faith!!! I agree with you that Shelley should have been done with Pamela from that point on.

    I suppose Pamela’s supposed to look like someone out of The Preppy Handbook in that outfit? And she kind of does. The Patrice Allardyce mystery hunk subplot is kind of fun, but I agree that she wouldn’t have divulged her family problems to the girls. At most she would have stopped at, “This is my younger brother and you saw us having a conversation about private family matters.” The telescope on the roof thing is out of line, but then these are teenagers, teenagers get carried away and behave badly sometimes, and it’s treated as the invasive behaviour that it is.

    Faith and Dana’s comments about Shelley’s weight are so rude and mean. From what I remember, in high school you’d hear comments like that from people who weren’t your friends, but you didn’t hear it from a friend if your relationship was at all functional. I think this is more of a “media normalizes the poor treatment of overweight people” thing than a realistic thing. In real life Shelley would tell them off for such comments if they were made or at least get upset, yet she never seems to mind in the book.

    With regard to the hair drying incident, I wouldn’t say that the world has changed that much in regard to basic concern for others. Some people are simply more selfish than others. Some people are outright sociopaths. Some girls would have said, then and now, “Not my problem. I’m blow drying my hair anyway.” Dana’s simply more considerate and willing to yield than that.

    I actually *liked* the black-painted room — a later description says that the girls got rid of their bedframes and put up colourful posters to give the room an artsy feel. It always seemed kind of cool and fun to me, like Faith’s wearing both of her earrings in one ear. One of my favourite things about this series was always these little creative flourishes as to the things that girls did. It made me feel inspired to come up with individual stylistic choices myself.

    • I think the absence of offense on Shelley’s part in response to these fat-shaming remarks (offense that would have been completely justified, I might add) was one of those ’80s things that just served to further victimize the overweight. It’s like they weren’t even allowed to be upset if people treated them badly, because clearly they deserved it. Compared to so many other series of its time, I love Canby Hall, but UGH.

      I agree about the little creative flourishes. (Exhibit A: Toby’s tea bag.) Those things really did set this series apart, even when they ventured into caricature territory (Exhibit B: Dana having a fashion-buyer mother seguing into Dana being a freaking MODEL for her summer job.)

  6. When I mentioned stylistic flourishes. I meant the realistic, achievable things like painting 407 black, or Alison painting the overhead pipes in her apartment different colours, or Andy taking the fabric flower off Toby’s red dress and pinning it in her hair. The other things like Dana working as a model or the girls regularly flying all over the country to visit each other or to go on spring break sounded great but way too pie in the sky to translate into any real effect on how I lived my life. And we’re not the only ones who felt that way. I once saw an internet comment from a woman who said that when she got her ears pierced, she got both holes put into one ear because Faith had and she thought it was such a great idea.

    • So many of the books of my childhood had the power to do that, I think. I remember so well the huge impact the Baby-Sitters’ Club books had on my idea of cool fashion. Imitating Claudia’s leggings, “push-down” socks, inanimate-object earrings, and booties were my entree into walking down the school hallway feeling FINE.

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