I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the writing in this one was actually not bad. I mean even by adult, I’m-not-mentally-ill standards. So it’s possible, ghostwriters. You really can churn out a semi-decent teen novel. And have it reflect well on me for ever liking this series in the first place. It’s a win-win!
So the girls return from their Fort Lauderdale shenanigans to find that out of the blue, Canby Hall has decided to let in boys. They’re starting with a trial of three boys for the spring term only. If it goes well, they’ll admit boys in full force next year. (Side note: as far as I can tell, this experiment did go well, since the boys end up staying through graduation, but no other males are ever admitted. These three remain the only boys the following year, and when the new class comes in around book #18 there are no boys then either. Did the school administration fear no others could ever live up to the three original superior specimens of teenage masculinity?) “Where are they putting these guys?” Dana wants to know. Responds Casey with a straight face, “Here. In 407.” See, in the ’80s, this was a joke. Today, that might be true.
Anyway, the whole dorm realizes things have definitely changed when they go down for Sunday brunch, and later for a fire drill, looking like crap and the boys are there to witness it all. The girls are all wearing ratty bathrobes (a Canby tradition, apparently, though we never hear of it again) and Pamela Young is wearing an herbal mud mask. So she’s been seen with mud on her face before, what was the big deal in book #17? PA makes the official announcement once classes start back up, which is a little late on the uptake if you ask me. Why would there be no warning given to the students, and especially the parents, before such a major change in a 100-year-old boarding school? Can you imagine paying an arm and a leg for your daughter’s single-sex education and learning secondhand that the school changed it on a whim over Spring Break to make a few extra bucks? Sheesh.
In any case, the time has now come to introduce the new men on the scene. They are Terry, a writer whom Dana, of course, instantaneously falls head over heels for; Sheff, who is black so is obviously a new love interest for who else but Faith; and Keith, who is a nerd and the surprise object of affection for the anti-male Casey. Keith, though a stereotypical dork who accessorizes with calculators and pocket protectors even though I have never seen anyone dress this way even after spending years in academics, is the most lovable of the newcomers, if you ask me. He makes observations such as: “You girls seem to live on toast and black coffee. You ought to be starting the day with more protein. Not to mention riboflavin.” Ladies’ man Sheff takes the opportunity to suggest the girls sit down and have a few riboflavins with them.
Terry and Dana end up in the same writing class and begin exchanging their work for the other to critique. Naturally this convinces Dana they will get married. The campus adjusts to the awkwardness of having boys around and welcomes them. (But really, of all the hundreds of girls on campus, the boys didn’t even consider another clique besides our 407 vixens? Are they some kind of vortex, sucking every new person on campus into their midst?) Soon, the local boys (including the 407 girls’ boyfriends … yoo-hoo, remember us?) get jealous. Randy calls, and Dana blows him off because she wants to work on a poem to impress Terry in class the next day. Randy says he doesn’t think “taking a couple of hours off will set literature back in any heavy way.” She becomes deeply, mortally offended. You know, you’re right, Dana. Modern civilization will suffer terribly if we don’t all make time for your poetry. Right after this, Johnny runs into Randy and asks if he’s worried about the new guys at Canby Hall stealing their girls. Randy says “These guys have only been here one day, right? I don’t think even Dana can fall in love that fast.” Famous last words, Randster! (Why is this girl appealing again? Someone get back to me.)
Meanwhile, Sheff is super-cool and sophisticated, so Faith is tongue-tied around him. He’s an obsessed jazz musician, so she asks to hear him play the trumpet. He declines for the moment, but in the middle of the night plays a song for her under her window. He makes it clear he’s not into “preppies,” so Faith starts wondering if she’s too preppy. Poor Johnny Bates, Faith’s actual boyfriend, is suddenly referred to as an “RTB”: a Regular Teenage Boy. (In comparison to Sheff, who is super-cool and sophisticated, in case that hasn’t been mentioned already. Which it has.) Uh, isn’t this the same guy who singlehandedly talked down armed robbers?
At this point it was time for a quick break so things could devolve into cheesiness that seems better suited to one of the other books in this series. The Annual Pancake Breakfast takes place, which is when the girls invite local family and boyfriends over for pancakes in the maple grove. Afterwards, they put on an absurd, rather infantile Spring Concert that PA proudly claims is all her idea. (Patrice, I wouldn’t be too quick to take the
blame credit for that if I were you.) Let me paint a picture: the choir members dress up in tulip dresses while other girls dress up as woodland creatures and weave in and out among them. Keith dresses up like a bee and buzzes around like what I can only presume is an imbecile. Shelley reads a poem about spring wearing a dress made of scarves. I’m embarrassed for them just writing this. Anyway, Randy shows up and Dana tries to subtly pretend she doesn’t know him so Terry won’t find out she has a boyfriend, without letting Randy notice. How twisted is that? That’s not cute, it’s messed up. Then Randy asks Dana to go riding with him, she turns him down saying she has plans with Faith, and then Terry comes up and asks if she’s ready to meet him in half an hour to work on their writing. Randy finally realizes he’s being played and huffs off on his horse.
This book — it took 12 books to get here, for crying out loud — is the first one to actually call the girls out on their ridiculously fickle behaviour, and to state that it is wrong for them to chase other guys while they have boyfriends (just to be clear, those are 8 separate links to their inanity), and to show consequences for doing so. How remarkably refreshing! Dana finally shows some insight and says she wants to go after Terry, but knows she should let go of Randy before she pursues someone else, but realizes she can’t seem to do that, and maybe it’s because she’s too scared to be without a boyfriend. But things don’t veer too far off the beaten path here — Dana shows insight, but that doesn’t mean she begins actually using it. So fear not, nothing’s changing too much here in Bizarro Land. Ignoring her relationship with Randy completely, she writes a bad poem asking Terry out and puts it in his mailbox. He never mentions it. (She muses that “one of the tough things about being a modern, independent girl was that some boys were still lagging a little behind the times, and got nervous when a girl asked them out.” Yeah, that’s it.) Later he tells her he loved the poem, confirming that he received it, but never says anything about going out on a date. Dana is confused as no fictional male character has ever been able to resist her before. Obviously she must need to try harder.
Lest you fear that Dana is the only one with a critical case of the crazies, don’t you worry — Faith is a fellow patient. In fact this must be the only book in which Shelley is the one largely spared from the boy drama. Faith is struggling with her crush on Sheff, a crush that is understandable when you consider the lines he feeds her, such as that she’s lucky she has Johnny because otherwise she’d fall too hard for him. Excuse me while I swoon. They all talk about how conceited Sheff is, and yet Faith seems to find it attractive. I completely fail to understand that about some women. Trust me, girls — there’s nothing hotter than a humble guy! Faith lies to Johnny about being sick and then goes behind his back to a dance at Oakley Prep (the boys’ school down the street, which has more dances than weeks in the school year, as far as I can tell) in the hopes of running into Sheff. (Because as per his roommate and resident nerd Keith, “There is a fifty-three percent probability of Sheff going to the mixer.”) She’s changed her hairstyle and her clothes to impress Sheff. There, Sheff and Faith dance, Shelley’s boyfriend Tom sees this and calls Johnny to tip him off, and Johnny shows up just in time to see Sheff and Faith kiss. Johnny punches Sheff and Sheff refuses to fight. OK, I will grudgingly spare an ounce of respect for our new friend Sheff.
In a nonsensical plot point, Faith and Dana decide that the logical answer to their troubles is to go to a fortune teller. (Sample exchange: during the palm reading, Madame Irene tells Dana she can see that Dana is a runner. Dana says, “Oh yes. And that’s in my palm too?” “No,” says Madame Irene. “I zee your Nike shoes. I think of getting pair myself.”) Madame Irene doesn’t see a dark-haired man in Dana’s life until far in the future (which is disappointing, since Terry is dark-haired) and she prophesies that Faith has already taken a photograph of her future husband but hasn’t met him yet, and that, as per Shakespeare, Faith should “To thine own self be true.” Looks like this lady earned her $10 apiece there.
Whether because of her brief exposure to Madame Irene’s infinite wisdom, I don’t know, but Dana finally grows a conscience and realizes she has to break up with Randy. She goes out to his farm and gets on a horse to go looking for him, but gets caught in a storm. Randy comes to her rescue. She still decides to lower the boom (no argument from me there), Randy gets mad and rides off, and she’s left to find her way home herself. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have just witnessed the long-overdue demise of this infernal relationship.
Faith comes to her senses and realizes she’s changing herself for Sheff and it exhausts her, but she hasn’t yet made up with Johnny. Casey bursts in with the news that the cafeteria has outdone itself — the word “Surprise” on the menu usually denotes a terrifying dish whose surprise is never revealed even after consumption, and today’s special is “Surprise Surprise.” Unable to face whatever horrible culinary concoction that might be, the girls of 407, Casey, and the Canby boys decide to go out for pizza. Dana mentions that she broke up with her boyfriend and that she and Terry should go out. Once again, Terry doesn’t take the bait. Dana is mystified. While they’re eating, the boyfriends (Tom, Randy and Johnny) happen to pass by on the street and see them. They get so mad they decide to destroy the Canby boys’ room. (Obviously security must be real tight at this place. What a comfort to the families around the world sending their young daughters here.) The Canby boys return home to find their room toilet-papered, sauerkraut and shaving cream everywhere, the beds short-sheeted, and a message in lipstick saying the stunt is from their 4 secret admirers. In the tradition of wacky ’80s humour and misunderstandings, the Canby boys think the 407 girls and Casey did it, so they decide to get back at them.
They deliver a gift-wrapped frog to Faith. They get Dana in trouble in her writing class. During play practice (another thing they have more of in this school system than weeks in the school year), every time Shelley tries to say her lines, a chicken’s clucking comes over the loudspeakers. (Uh, OK.) They put a fake hand in the dining hall’s beef stroganoff, intending to scare Casey as she goes through the line, but unfortunately PA chooses that moment to herd some important donors through the line, and a rich elderly VIP sees it first and goes into hysterics.
Really, PA is the weirdest headmistress ever. Her priorities are totally out of whack. She has no problem letting her teenage students gallivant off to a college Spring Break destination, but totally overreacts to a not-even-very-imaginative prank like this one. In true PA-fashion, she grounds the whole school until someone comes forward to take responsibility. Terry admits to Dana that they did it. Somehow during this conversation, he also admits that he has a long-term girlfriend who’s planning on coming to Canby next year. Dana had assumed “Chris” was his best friend. D’oh! Dana feels like an idiot but convinces him they need to turn themselves in. And she figures out their boyfriends were the ones who started the whole thing. So the boys confess to PA, who scares them by saying this makes her rethink whether boys should be part of Canby Hall at all. Yes, because your precious girls are so well-behaved. I mean really. So their response is to assemble a massive 10-foot bouquet on her front lawn, with garden hoses for stems, and a huge sign that says “PLEASE FORGIVE YOUR BAD BOYS.” When faced with this bizarre presentation, PA is so touched that she decides all is forgiven and no one is expelled. (The boys are sentenced to yardwork for the rest of the Saturdays in the term, but I’m pretty sure we’ll never see them doing that.) I can’t decide whether their apology is weird, creepy or just incongruous. I mean, what does it have to do with anything? Most likely the ghostwriter was just fast approaching her deadline by this point.
But before it’s over, Faith makes up with Johnny. And is the first to finally tell Dana that her habit of collecting guys is not healthy. Faith’s theory is that Dana’s dad leaving has left Dana insecure, so that now she approaches every new guy as some kind of test of whether she can make him fall for her. “I think something’s out of whack when you’ve had half a dozen boyfriends and not one boy friend,” Faith says. Someone give this girl a prize! Dana is properly chastened, but still, I think we can be sure her commitment to singleness won’t last long, no matter how much we will it. The book ends with the group of 7 (the Canby boys, the 407 girls, and Casey) plotting to paint the boyfriends’ cars with watercolours in good-natured revenge.
Humorous honorary mentions:
– Dana walks down the hall and notes that “Mary Ann Olsen and Sara Smith were playing Lionel Richie records. Mary Ann and Sara were always playing Lionel Richie records. Whoever was married to Lionel Richie didn’t hear more of him than Mary Ann and Sara did.” Ah, back in the day when you couldn’t just Google to find out who was married to whatever celebrity popped into your head! What? You don’t do that? Oh, uh, never mind. Neither do I.
– This exchange: Casey admits to Dana that she’s in love with Keith, which still shocks her even though everyone around them has known for ages. To paraphrase:
“He’s not really all that nerdy once you really get to know him,” Casey said.
“No?” Dana said, doubting that Casey’s assessment of Keith would bear much resemblance to reality.
Casey: “He has such beautiful hands.”
“I’ve never noticed his hands,” Dana said. “I’m always too busy looking at his elbows. They’re gorgeous.”
And so the boys are here to stay, at least until graduation. Will they be allowed to live independent lives, or will these girls engulf them in their dramas until they escape to college? Or will they all wake up one day mature and determined to focus on academics? HAHAHAHAHA! I’ll report back.