At last we have entered the era of my much-preferred trio of roommates! This book was so much easier to swallow and so much less snarkable than previous ones that I had to make a mental note of the ghostwriter. Carol Stanley, here’s looking at you, kid. Cheers for writing a story that was minimally cheesy, often amusing, and which largely just made sense. You’re in the minority here.
Our latest Canby adventure opens with red-headed October Houston waking up after her last night in Texas, which she spent sleeping out under the stars on her ranch. She’s dreading her trip to school in Massachusetts that day, which is happening because her dad is sending her to boarding school in order to learn to get along with people. Seems Toby (I always loved that Toby was a nickname for October) is too solitary and prefers horses to people.
Meanwhile, Andrea Cord is arriving at Canby from Chicago. In her case, it was her idea to go to boarding school so she could get a little space from her suffocatingly loving family. She’s doing fine, but her family is having a collective breakdown over it. But as her best friend said, “What you need is to go Cord-less for awhile.” Andy is the new Faith, which is to say, Andy is black.
Oblivious to the above, Jane Barrett, who we met at the end of the last book, is busy painting 407, her new single room. She is a preppy Boston blueblood who was at Canby the year before, rooming with one Gigi Norton, affectionately known as The Worst Person In the World (and who is the new Pamela.) That experience is what made her determined to get a single.
As an aside, what I love about this new group is that while some old characters have direct new incarnations (Gigi as Pamela, soon Merry as Alison), the three new roommates are not just cookie-cutter replicas of the three old roommates. Superficially, Andy is the new Faith because they’re both the token women of colour, Toby is the new Shelley because they’re both from the country, and Jane is the new Dana by process of elimination. But Andy is way happier and less dismally practical than Faith and is also a ballerina, Toby is a cowgirl and not a total hick like weirdo Shelley, and Jane is more conservative than Dana and comes from an old wealthy family instead of a modern divorced one. Toby is the one with the deceased parent like Faith, as her mother died three years ago. In the world of YA fiction, it’s rather refreshing to see characters treated at least occasionally as individuals instead of templates.
Of note, however, there are no boys! Despite the fanfare with which the admitting-boys experiment was started, it has now faded away without a whisper.
So anyway, when Andy arrives at 407, Jane is so shocked to find out she’s been assigned roommates when she thought she was going to have a single room that she acts like a total snob. (Andy introduces herself, and Jane, not realizing they’re going to be roommates, thinks So? Why tell me? Way to be friendly there Janie! And when Andy shows her the computer printout of roommate assignments, a copy of which has somehow not reached Jane, and asks “Are you or October or Jane?”, the latter gives her a frosty look and says “My family wouldn’t consider October an acceptable name. I’m not sure it even is a name.”) Actually, I was surprised to see how snobbish she was throughout this book when I remember her as a generally likeable character. Guess this goes to show how much personal growth she experienced over her memorable Canby years.
Jane is, unsurprisingly, ticked that she has not one but two roommates, especially when she specifically requested a single, and especially given that she’s one of the famous Boston Barretts. Her grandfather donated the money to build Barrett Hall at Canby. So surely there’s some mistake. She goes to see Alison, who tells her enrollment was unexpectedly high this term and therefore no single rooms will be available. Alison tries to cheer up Jane and get her to look on the bright side, but Jane informs her she’s going to go see headmistress PA herself. After all, if Jane’s grandfather gave an entire building to the school, she ought to be able to get one room in return. Alison says to her, “You know it doesn’t work that way around here. Nobody has special clout at Canby Hall.” Jane and I don’t believe her.
So since Alison can’t help, Jane and Andy are forced to spend their first night in the room together. Jane bursts into tears at the sight of Andy unfolding an earth-tone striped rug and bedspread in her carefully planned Wedgwood blue room. (They always mention this dumb “Wedgwood blue” and, growing up, I never knew what the heck Wedgwood blue was. Here at last is a Google image putting my mind to rest:)
Isn’t that a little dark to be painting your walls? Anyway, I digress. They eat dinner separately and lie in their beds in silence, Jane having rebuffed all Andy’s friendly attempts at chatter. Jane is listening to Beethoven on her tape player and Andy is listening to Tina Turner. Neither of them wants to admit they really like the other’s music. I can’t imagine having both of those going at once with no headphones. Into this, Toby walks in after a long day of traveling across the country. Without a word or glance at anyone, she heads straight for the remaining bed and goes right to sleep in her jeans and fringed suede jacket. Jane thinks to herself, Great, a real live cowgirl. Andy thinks to herself, White girls sure are weird. I think to myself, Toby is a ridiculous representation of people from Texas. She can’t even acknowledge other human beings? She seems more like an undertreated Asperger’s patient than just someone who grew up on a ranch.
The next day is their first Canby Hall assembly. PA mentions that this year the administration became computerized. Yay 1986! Andy and Jane are sitting separately. Toby is not there at all because she’s escaped in search of wide open spaces, and has found one just outside of town. Her reverie in the Great Outdoors is interrupted, however, when a wild runaway horse comes galloping towards her, with its owner futilely chasing her on his own horse. Experienced rider and rancher Toby, without thinking, jumps right onto the runaway’s back and stops her. The owner is very impressed with her bravado and introduces himself as none other than Randy Crowell. Toby immediately develops a very severe crush. Ah, the return of the much-put-upon Randy! He is a significantly different character in this second half of the series. In the first half, it was he who pined after Dana. In the second half, he now has the power, as the object of Toby’s first, longstanding crush. He grows cold when he finds out Toby is a Canby student. He explains this by saying, “I used to know somebody there. It didn’t end up too well. I’ve sort of shied away from the place since then.” Uh, since May, when you attended Dana’s graduation? He also says he’s 20 and considers the Canby girls “babies,” which will be a major point of contention for 15-year-old Toby, and which leaves me scratching my head since I believe he was 18 during that same graduation 3 months ago. Ah, the miracles of time fluidity. Anyway, he lets Toby name the runaway horse, which his family has just acquired, and she names it Maxine after her horse back home named Max.
Meanwhile Jane is waiting outside the auditorium to waylay PA with her repeat request for a single room. She doesn’t need roommates in order to have friends. She already has all the friends she needs, girls from her old private school in Boston whose families have known each other forever. Interesting, because we don’t hear about a single one of these wonderful girls at any point in the rest of the series. Anyway, Jane is sure she has nothing in common with Andy and Toby even if she wanted to be their friends, which she doesn’t, especially since Toby in particular is so weird. This morning, without a word to anyone, Texas Toby taped a single teabag to the ceiling above her bed. No one has any idea what it’s supposed to mean. Ah, Toby’s teabag! One of the enduring mysteries of the Canby Hall series.
PA, however, is not impressed by Jane’s attempt to play the nepotism card in order to get her single room. She responds — awesomely, in my opinion — that Jane is right, and Barretts do deserve special treatment. For several generations the Barrett family has been very generous to Canby Hall, and PA is sure Jane’s parents would want her to be reminded of that spirit and to be more generous than anyone else. So if another late arrival shows up on campus, PA will plan to squeeze her into Jane’s room. I love this response, but it sucks that it would never happen in real life. I fear that in said real life, PA would be too afraid of the Barretts’ influence and financial support, and the Barretts would be too likely to back Jane up instead of the school, to do anything but give in. Sigh … if only life were fair! To add insult to injury, Jane then runs into her former roommate Gigi Norton, who happily informs her that, due to a computer glitch, Gigi actually did get a single room.
While this is going on, Andy bumps into Dee Adams in the dorm, a California surfer girl who turns out to be their next-door neighbour. Dee takes her back to her room, 409, to see her new decor (a wall full of surfing photos above a sand-coloured bedspread) and to meet her roommate, Maggie Morrison. Maggie is none other than the little sister of our dear departed Dana. And somehow, though it was always beaten over our heads that Dana was a sophisticated woman of the world because she was from Manhattan, the same is never said of Maggie. Of course, Maggie wears glasses, so that explains it. Anyway, it turns out Maggie and Dee lived together the year before, which must mean Dee was one of the set of string beans. But if that’s the case, why did Dee and Maggie switch dorms? Is it only room 407 that sucks its inhabitants into a 3-year “You May Never Move” contract? Maggie tells Andy that Jane sang in the chorale with Dana last year. (So why did Dana not know who Jane was when she showed up to check out 407 at the end of the last book?) Maggie also tells Andy that Jane’s from a really big-shot Boston family and will probably turn out to be a slob like all the rich girls around there who are used to their maids picking up after them. Our friend Maggie, being a fountain of wisdom on this particular day, also tells Andy that Dana had big-time roommate problems when she first got to Canby too, and she and Faith and Shelley worked it out and became the best of friends. Andy is all like Yeah, OK dude, but Maggie promises to write to Dana in Hawaii and ask for her advice. (Remember having to write a letter, put it in the mail, wait for it to arrive, and then wait for the reply? And now we just … text.) Maggie also promises to try to work on Jane, and Dee will try to help with Toby.
The next day Toby, who gets up at the butt-crack of dawn every day so is usually the first in the cafeteria, meets Dee, who works as the doughnut maker. Dee makes her first doughnut for Toby but sprinkles black pepper on it instead of confectioner’s sugar. At that moment, the dietician stops by. In order to prevent Dee from getting into trouble, Toby claims that she asked for her doughnut that way because that’s how they eat them in Texas. The skeptical dietician says she loves seeing homesickness alleviated and therefore wants to watch Toby enjoy her supposed custom creation. Without missing a beat, Toby eats the whole thing and the dietician backs off, saving Dee’s job. Dee is grateful for Toby’s help, but Toby brushes it off. Dee tries to engage her in conversation about her roommates, but Toby notes that friendship with them isn’t required, says that silence doesn’t bother her, and cryptically mentions that she might not be around for long anyway. Dee gives up. But when Toby’s alone, our Texas cowgirl engages in some good old self-flagellation. Turns out Toby’s cool act is just a cover for being lonely and shy and unsure of how to make friends of the non-equine variety.
Back at 407, Andy is on the phone with her family, all of whom were apparently up until 3 AM the night before crying. She tells them she’s pretty sure the baby, at least, was just crying because she needed her diaper changed. She also promises to call them back soon, and negotiates waiting as long as till after lunch to do so. Seems that while many other new students are homesick, Andy’s family is Andy-sick. But she doesn’t want them to know how dismal things are in her room, or they’ll storm the place. She’s on her way to class when she decides to do a good turn and wake up the still-sleeping Jane. Jane freaks out about being late and not being able to get dressed in time, Andy makes a joke about that being because her side of the room is a mess, and Jane snaps, taking it way personally. Andy leaves in tears and Jane realizes that maybe she was too sensitive, but has missed her chance to apologize.
In Jane’s creative writing workshop, the assignment is to write about something that takes you out of your ordinary realm of experience. Gigi suggests that Jane go to the dance at Oakley Prep, the local boys’ boarding school and primary source of Canby Hall boyfriends, the following weekend to hear their resident rock band, Ambulance, play. Jane is horrified at the thought of being anywhere near such an event. (The girl has never been to a high school dance?) The teacher overhears her and pushes Jane to go. That night on the phone with her equally Boston-proper longtime boyfriend Neal (AKA Cornelius Worthington III), they have a good laugh at how ridiculous it will be. Neal can’t come because he has a sailing race, and to quote him, “sailing is life.”
Later, Jane picks up an incoming call and hears a large number of people sobbing and pleading for Andy. Alarmed, she finds Andy, thinking there’s some sort of family emergency. In fact, it’s just teatime. Jane is amazed at how attached the Cords are to Andy. She also apologizes for her behaviour that morning. A care package then shows up from Andy’s family, full of the things they think she’ll need in Massachusetts: thermal underwear, toilet paper and barbecue sauce. Jane is mystified by the barbecue sauce until Andy explains that her family owns one of the best steak-and-ribs restaurants in Chicago. Jane has never had ribs, only prime rib. Andy laughs at her. Jane is wounded. Andy realizes she’s being “smugly black in opposition to Jane being smugly upper-class.” In an effort to change the subject, she pokes fun at Toby’s teabag and Jane joins in. At that moment Toby enters, hearing everything. She doesn’t respond in any way when they try to apologize. Jane then says she’s going to go sunbathe, and Andy gets hurt that she wasn’t invited along. Jane didn’t realize black people sunbathed. Now none of the three of them are speaking again. I feel like these children are trying to have issues with each other.
Toby goes over to the Crowell ranch to ride Maxine. She and Randy hang out and Randy tells her about Dana, and again claims he hasn’t been on the Canby campus since they broke up. Inconsistency! Toby notes that Randy still sounds “kind of mad at this Dana,” which is news to me since they were supposedly such good friends, and he shuts her down by calling her a kid, which riles Toby up. Then, because she’s going to be late to Spanish class, he gives her a horseback ride to the building, which gives her quite the dramatic entrance. Dee, who’s in that class, has a present for her: foil-wrapped doughnuts. Toby is embarrassed to find tears in her eyes at the kindness.
Weeks go by and the roommates become entrenched in their own routines separate from each other. The entire dorm except Alison, who seems to be asleep on the housemother job, knows 407 is a roommate failure. Despite the gloom, Andy, the dancer, is excited about the upcoming Oakley Prep dance. Being a glutton for punishment, she asks the other two if they’d like to join her. Toby refuses. Jane admits that she was planning to go in order to write a paper on the experience, since the only dances she’s been to are cotillions at the Boat Club. She brandishes a spiral notebook. Andy is alarmed.
Jane does indeed spend most of the dance conspicuously standing on the sidelines taking notes. Andy is swept up in the dancing and Jane is impressed at her ability. She starts taking notes on the band players. The lead singer (who is a truly unique specimen given his long hair and single earring), notices, leans down from the stage, and tells her he’d like to read what she was writing about him. Offended at his nerve, Jane moves away and thinks to herself how nice it is that she has Neal and is all set, and doesn’t have to bother with social events like this one. During a break, the lead singer finds her and they start talking. Turns out that despite his appearance, he is actually a Boston blueblood himself. He and Jane were even in the same kiddie ballroom dancing class together. And this is our first introduction to Cary Slade. When a popular girl leads Cary away, Jane is surprised to find herself crying on the way home even though she thinks she doesn’t care an iota about him.
Jane’s boyfriend Neal comes to town for a visit the next day. (Of note, because Jane considers herself a feminist, she’s trained him not to open doors for her. And we wonder why chivalry is dead!) They head to the Greaf (the Greenleaf Diner, with a few letters burnt out on the sign), which is to this generation of Canby Hall girls what Pizza Pete’s and the Tutti Frutti were to the last. And who is behind the counter on this fine morning? None other than Cary Slade! Cary gives a knowing smile when he sees them, being very familiar with Neal’s type, but of course Neal has no idea who he is. Throughout their breakfast, Jane finds herself tuning out Neal and thinking about Cary. And when their bill comes, she finds Cary has written her a note: “I think we already know each other. And I think I’d like to get to know you even better.” Barely knowing what she’s doing, Jane gives him an imperceptible nod behind Neal’s back. Ah, two-timing, that grand old Canby Hall tradition, begins again! For the rest of the day Jane can’t stop thinking about Cary and realizing that she really thinks of Neal as more of a best friend.
When she gets back to her room after Neal leaves that night, she finds Andy agitated and Toby vainly trying to help with a cup of hot cocoa. (Which is more human interaction than we’ve seen out of her this entire book.) Turns out that despite all her protests, the Cords don’t believe Andy is really happy, and are taking a family caravan out to Canby Hall to see for themselves. Toby, in her first glimpse of insight, notes that Andy isn’t happy because of their roommate situation and her family has probably picked up on that. Jane and Toby, unbelievably, agree to put on a loving-roommate act and pretend they are the closest trio in history for the duration of her parents’ visit. As they begin plotting, Maggie stops by to say that Dana called from a WATS line (no idea what that is? Me either! Now we do) and that her advice for roommate bonding was to find a project they could work on together. Luckily, they already have.
Dorm life grows more exciting when Dee and Maggie throw a surfing party in the 4th-floor bathroom complete with heat lamps, spraying water and sand. Andy drags Toby (who is clad in her “school-issue, 1950s-style” swimsuit … my school most definitely did not issue swimsuits) to the party, where the latter ends up cheering up the depressed Dee, who is noticing that the party is not actually that similar to Laguna Beach, by promising to take her to that other ocean, the Atlantic, as soon as possible.
Meanwhile Maggie goes to find Jane, who’s working on her paper in her room rather than, you know, have fun at a party. At that moment Cary calls asking Jane to meet him for pizza, which she declines because he seems so sure of himself. The next thing they know, Oakley Prep’s resident rock star himself is serenading Jane from the lawn below her window with a personalized ditty. He’s gathering an audience and won’t stop until she agrees to go out with him. Out of humiliation and under duress, Jane agrees.
On their date Cary plays her some new music in an effort to get her closer to liking rock, saying that he’s always looking for converts. Then in a show of honesty totally unlike most 15-year-old boys, he admits that he actually wants her to like him. Later he admits that he doesn’t have a string of girls despite his rock-star image, and that he’s just playing a role onstage but gets shy when alone with one girl. Jane realizes that she hides behind an image too, that of the cool, proper, reserved Boston girl. Cary tells her he knows they’re kindred spirits. (A shout-out to one of my favourite series of all time!) This is apparently irrevocably proven by the fact that they also like the same pizza toppings.
Soon the weekend of the Cords’ visit arrives. Everyone has been working to make 407 seem like the coziest room ever. Alison has even agreed to let the girls cook dinner in her apartment. The Cords get there and it turns out Andy’s older brother Charlie is hot. He wonders if “there are a lot of cute black girls around here.” Yes, the interracial taboo is still alive and well! Andy’s younger brother Ted is into frogs, and is Toby’s responsibility. Her baby sister Nancy takes an immediate liking to Jane and adopts her for the rest of the weekend. The visit goes well, with the girls telling Andy’s parents that they have a nightly “Sharing Hour” in which they share their days’ joys and frustrations, along with other friendship-related whoppers. Toby takes the brothers riding at the Crowell ranch on two horses who the Crowells feel are city-slicker appropriate because “we haven’t seen them move in a few years. We think they might be dead. It’s hard to tell.” Andy’s father wanders over to the dining hall, is horrified at what he sees, and spends the afternoon conferencing with the dietician, leaving her with copies of his pamphlets entitled “Magic with Macaroni” and “First Aid for Hamburger.” Is anyone else dying to know what culinary gems are inside these publications? Andy goes shopping with her mother, who finally asks her how much work went into this performance. Turns out Mama Cord saw through the whole thing. But she’s not upset, because she thinks that although the show of friendship is fake, the spirit behind it must be real or the others wouldn’t have gone along with it. But as the three girls stand waving goodbye to the departing Cords, happy about their success, Andy accidentally manages to insult them both and, yet again, they’re not speaking to each other.
Toby finds herself in tears and running to the Crowell ranch, where she cries in a stable. Randy comforts her and she asks him out. He kindly says no and she runs away. Later, Dee receives a cryptic note from Toby asking her whether she’d like to see the BEST ocean tonight. While she puzzles over what the note means, Jane is trying to fix her slobby ways by cleaning up her part of the room. Andy is afraid to acknowledge her efforts for fear of being misunderstood again. They receive a call from Cary telling them that Toby is sitting at the train station across the street from the Greaf. Meanwhile Dee has received a call from Toby saying she’s running away. Only she can’t go back to her ranch because her dad will be mad, and she doesn’t have enough money for the full train fare back to Texas, so she’s going to “ride the rails” and wants to know if Dee wants to join her. Running away soon after arriving at Canby Hall? Sounds familiar!
Jane and Andy hem and haw about trying to stop Toby, saying maybe her leaving is for the best and that she probably wouldn’t listen to them anyway. Dee verbally slaps some sense into them. They realize they need to go, and ask Dee if they can go by themselves as a roommate-bonding type of thing. Seems like sort of a weird priority at a time like this, but OK. They tell Cary to stall Toby and call Randy to meet them there.
Of course, they catch Toby in time and have a heart-to-heart, airing out their differences. Unsurprisingly, they convince her to stay. At that moment Randy pulls up. He tells Toby he can’t date her because of their age difference, but he really cares about her. Then all three girls and Cary hide under the hay in Randy’s truck so he can take them back to school, which is now locked as they are past curfew. Under the hay, Jane and Cary have their first kiss. All I can think is, poor Neal! As the girls sneak back into Baker House, they are caught by Alison, but instead of the requisite floor time with PA that these escapades usually end in, Alison just says she will forget she ever saw them if they agree to be no trouble for the rest of the year.
The book ends with the girls musing that having roommate trouble at first must be a 407 tradition but now that’s way in their past, Jane stating that that night was the first time a Barrett had ever ridden in a hay truck, and Andy asking Toby what the teabag was about but Toby being fast asleep. And now our 407 girls have gotten through their requisite tough times and are ready to roll problem-free through their series. Until the next book that is!