Ugh. Much like one of my dear commenters noted, Shelley Hyde is back like a pesky case of The Herpes. Somehow it’s even worse knowing that this won’t be the last time (she figures prominently in book #33) but at least in this one, everyone hates her like I do.
It seems that the girls of 407 weren’t stuffed enough by Jane’s birthday extravaganza, as this book is also full of a lot of eating. It starts in our opening scene, in which our heroines are chowing down on another care package from Andy’s family. It contains quite a hodgepodge of foodstuffs, including: thick strips of cheese, bagels, lemon cookies, ham in a can, peanut butter, bread, and chocolate doughnuts. I guess all the major food groups are covered? They talk about how well things are going for all of them at the moment (uh-oh), about how the only thing they need for life to be perfect is for Andy’s family to figure out how to send barbecued ribs through the mail, and about how Andy wants to go see White Nights for the hundredth time. White Nights came out in 1985 and this book was written in 1988. Would it really still be playing in theatres?
At that moment, a voice breaks in. It’s Stupid (Strangely Seductive) Shelley! She’s wearing an outfit that consists of “very, very bright orange pants and matching long sweater and loop earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders.” Andy, the “most fashion-smart” of the three, decides that the idea of the outfit is great, but it doesn’t exactly work out right. You don’t say!
It turns out that Shelley is back on a nostalgia tour of Canby Hall, and there is some placid narration explaining that the girls know each other after having spent time together at Alison’s wedding. Uh, don’t make it sound like some sort of refined tea party. Wasn’t that the book where the Old Girls behaved like savages and Shelley actually shoved a piece of chocolate cake into Jane’s face? This history is conveniently glossed over and they’re now depicted as casual friends. Shelley wanders around Room 407 reminiscing, but when she’s offered food from Andy’s care package, for the first time ever she’s too excited to eat. Because tomorrow is the first day of the rest of her life. The girls stare at her blankly, and she explains that she’s starting rehearsals for a new play that’s coming to Boston. It’s her first day as a professional actress and it’s her big break, and she can barely contain herself. (For unclear reasons, the ghostwriter felt the need to add yet another annoying facet to this already irksome character: “Shelleyisms.” Shelley says “pozz” for “positive” and “terrif” for “terrific” and … I’m sorry, I can’t share more or my head will explode, and I have to be employable until my kids finish their higher education. You understand.)
Eventually, Toby and Jane manage to extricate themselves. Jane is shown telling Maggie that Shelley just didn’t want to leave 407, and Maggie responds by ignoring this and turning to their geometry homework. Isn’t Maggie more connected to Shelley than any of the current 407 girls, by way of being Dana’s sister? Maggie sure was hysterical about seeing Faith that one time. But for Shelley? Not a shred of interest. Maybe she’s finally learning.
Andy, meanwhile, is meandering around campus with Shelley, rubbing the lioness’ ear for luck. Shelley blabbers on about her impending Hollywood career and Andy does the same about her future dancing career. They bond over their shared dedication to the sacrifices of their respective crafts. Shelley confides that she has to play the piano in one of her scenes and she doesn’t know how, but that an actor should never admit they can’t do something, they should just learn as fast as they can. Andy says that’s sure not how it works with dancing, because faking it can get yourself hurt. FORESHADOWING.
The next day Jane and Toby are getting the mail. They marvel at the tome Andy gets from her family every other day, with Jane noting that her parents couldn’t write her a letter that long if they were documenting the entire history of the Barretts. What are the Cords writing so much about? Toby is distracted, though, by a letter from Neal. He has a horse-related surprise planned for her at Randy’s ranch that coming weekend.
Meanwhile, we see the return of the housekeeper Ms. Betts, who’s been nowhere to be found for the last, oh, 25 books. Is she still getting paid? She turns up the TV in the lounge, where Shelley’s being interviewed on the local station. The wannabe star babbles on about the play in her overexcited, incoherent way, but at the very end manages to become lucid enough to invite the girls of 407, by name, on-air, to be her guests on opening night. WHY? They’re not that close, and she could have picked up the phone, and she just spent like a whole day with them? It makes no sense. Andy and Jane are pretty excited by this, but Toby is less so (smart girl) because she’s busy writing a letter to Neal in mirror writing. Nothing about this chapter makes any sense.
The day of their date, Neal arrives. Toby thinks she sees Jane wink at him as they leave. In the car, Toby is uncomfortable to learn that Neal rides horses. Apparently they have never once discussed this. When they arrive at Randy’s ranch, it turns out that the surprise is Neal’s aunt’s horse Barnaby. He’s a dressage show horse, not a western working horse like Toby is used to. After checking him out, Toby decides to get on him, waving off Neal’s insistence that she listen to some instructions first. Once on Barnaby, she tries every command she knows, but the horse won’t move. Embarrassed and angry, she jumps off, refuses to listen to Neal or try again, and goes to sulk in the car.
Back at Baker House, they run into Jane and Cary, who have been trying out his new song on the housekeeper, who literally 10 pages later is now Mrs. Brett. If I practiced medicine like these people practiced editing, I’d be in prison. Anyway, Toby is even more upset to realize that Jane and Cary were in on the dressage horse surprise, and runs upstairs.
Side note: this book is written really oddly, with choppy, sudden endings of old scenes and abrupt segues into new ones. This is evidenced by the fact that, a page later, it’s opening night. The girls of 407 are getting dressed in the outfits we are supposed to be seeing on the cover: Andy, in “my skinny skirt and my most terrific loose sweater” (OK, I guess so); Toby, in a gray blouse with red and blue stripes and a long gray skirt (fine, reasonably accurate); and Jane, in a pink silk dress with an evening jacket made of “magic wool” (THE ONE ITEM I WANTED TO SEE AND IT’S NOT THERE!) Meredith drives them to Boston and they enter the theatre. The girls feel a mix of awe at seeing the official poster and cast headshots on display, but they’re also a little let-down, as the theatre is tiny, shabby, and has cast-off seats from Symphony Hall. Which Jane recognizes. She wonders aloud if they could be sitting in seats that used to bear plaques with her parents’ or grandparents’ names, and when her roommates give her a look, she says “I’m never going to stop being proud of being a Boston Barrett.” Listen, no one’s saying you can’t be proud, Jane, just do it on your own time.
They read the program notes aloud. Shelley’s say that she is a graduate of Canby Hall and “attended” Denton College. Meredith makes note of this, which I guess means Shelley dropped out of school. But what the heck is Denton College? I thought she went to the University of Iowa! Since being from Iowa is one of Stupid (Strangely Seductive) Shelley’s four character traits, this is such an unnecessary inconsistency! Also, in the book about Alison’s wedding, she’s seen practicing her lines for a science-fiction play at U of I, a play that is definitely not mentioned in these program notes. Toby isn’t impressed by any of this, but Andy’s head is full of dreams of seeing herself on stage one day and her own name in an official show program.
The play begins, and … it’s bad. The sets are confusing, the lines make no sense, and the audience is visibly bored. Even super-optimist Andy has to admit to herself that things aren’t going well. Shelley, however, is doing a good job.
They meet up with her after the show to join her for the cast dinner, to which she’s invited them. Shelley is exuberant, asking again and again if they liked it and saying that she just knows it went perfectly. The cast and crew have TVs set up to catch the local reporters’ reviews as soon as they air. An apprentice tells Toby she looks like Katharine Hepburn. The company manager tells the 407 girls that Shelley has a real future in the business. Then the reviews come on TV, and they’re brutal.
Afterwards, everyone is sitting in silence. Shelley has gone white from shock. The company manager orders someone to get the closing notice ready. The cast wants to grieve as a family, so Meredith and the 407 girls leave them to it and drive back to Canby Hall.
The girls quickly return to their usual concerns. Toby starts warming up to the idea of riding Barnaby. They go to town to rent videos, because this is 1988. They pick up Henry V for Meredith (that Merrie is such a party animal) and head up to her apartment to drop it off, but freeze when they hear heart-rending sobs. Turns out it’s Shelley, pouring out her heart to Meredith in tears. They hear her saying she’s a total failure, that she left college and can’t go back and face everyone. Then they hear Merrie offering her Princess Allegra’s old room as a place to stay for awhile.
Later, Jane tells Toby that she treated Neal badly, that Neal was so excited to give her a surprise but Toby wouldn’t even try to learn how to ride a new way. Neal’s aunt in Florida shipped Barnaby up north so he could become acclimated to the weather before the autumn county horse show, and Neal convinced her to board her horse at Randy’s ranch instead of whatever place she usually used, with the thought that maybe Toby could exercise him and eventually ride him in the show. First of all, what a dumb idea. Use the stables you already know and trust, lady, rather than the friend of a friend of your nephew’s who literally knows nothing about dressage. Andy, lost in her own thoughts, breaks in to declare that they’re all going to start being really kind and sympathetic to Stupid (Strangely Seductive) Shelley (SSSS). They get their first opportunity when they bump into Merrie showing SSSS the princess’ room in the dorm. They earnestly tell her how welcome she is and how she can come by 407 anytime, and she just ignores them and retires to her new room.
Can I say here what a stupid plot development it is that Shelley is now living back at Baker House? She doesn’t pay tuition, room or board at that school. She is not a student. She is a grown adult who doesn’t even know anyone there. Meredith wasn’t her housemother, Alison was! Meredith is practically a stranger to her! Why isn’t she home, or back at college, or at a friend’s house, or even in a hotel if she really can’t bear to go to any of those places? Why is this leech Meredith’s problem? How is this not a security issue for the girls who are actually authorized to live there? With this lackadaisical attitude I don’t understand why this school wasn’t shut down years ago. Honestly, ISIS could be living in Room 405 and no one would think it was odd.
Anyway, over the next little while the residents of Baker House realize that Shelley is avoiding everyone, even taking her showers after lights-out so she won’t have to speak to anyone. The girls of 407 call a dorm meeting in which they decide to plan an event to cheer Shelley up. After the traditional Maple Syrup Day, the annual event in which Canby Hall girls collect sap and make maple syrup, they will hire a horse and buggy and plan a picnic, with Shelley as the guest of honour. They are sure this will snap her out of her funk and let her see how much everyone cares about her. (Again, I ask: WHY??? She is a total waste of both oxygen and luridly-coloured polyester.) Penny makes a beautiful handmade invitation. Toby asks Randy if they can borrow one of his buggies, because he apparently has a collection. They all feel good about this plan. Because they are idiots.
But then that evening there’s a knock at the door of 407, and Shelley is there, looking pale and drawn. She’s holding their invitation between her thumb and first finger, as if it was contagious. “I can’t imagine how you thought I could possibly accept this,” she says. On account of how she’s not a Canby Hall girl anymore, she’s a grown-up, and a failed grown-up at that, and too upset to talk to anyone, you see. She catches sight of the autographed playbills she gave them before the play, and asks why they’re saving them when she’s never going to be a famous actress. Then she tells them to leave her alone and runs out of the room. Word spreads around the dorm, and people are shocked by her behavior. Penny says “She may think she’s a grown-up, but I think she’s a baby,” and Andy suddenly whirls on her, overcome by her own misguided sympathy, saying SSSS has just been hurt badly and isn’t handling it very well, and bursts into tears.
The next day, Toby and Jane agree to forget about Shelley. Jane promptly thinks of a way to cheer up Shelley and calls home, asking if she can bring Shelley to her family’s house for the weekend. She’s sure a couple of days in their tranquil mansion will cure all that ails our self-centered little friend. Meanwhile, Toby asks Randy if she can invite Shelley for a one-on-one horse and buggy ride, which Toby is sure will end her sorrows. At the same time, Andy is selecting the choicest treats from her latest care package and packaging them up for a dinner with Shelley. Each of them are sure that the problem is just that SSSS was overwhelmed. Surely if they approach her gently and individually she will respond with tremendous grace and appreciation!
Shelley rebuffs Andy’s gesture, saying there’s no point in talking because her life is over and she has nowhere to go. (Um, home? Back to school? A Motel 6? Just thinking out loud here.) She manages to irritate even sympathetic Andy with her non-stop self-pity. She rejects Jane’s invitation and tells Toby that she doesn’t want to ride in any old bumpy horse buggy, but if she did she would just ask Randy herself because she knew him long before Toby did. (Oh yeah, you knew him, SSSS.)
I just canNOT with this woman.
Jane goes complaining to Merrie, who says that headmistress PA has been in touch with Shelley’s family and they’ve all agreed to just give her some time. Where is her family, now that you mention it? Why weren’t they at opening night if this stupid play was such a big deal? Was it part of their plan to foist their horrible offspring on Canby Hall once more? WELL IT’S WORKING, HYDES.
Back in their room, Toby pulls out a small packet she received from Neal. She’s sure he’s sent back all her letters after her behaviour the last time they saw each other, and she hasn’t had the courage to open it. With Jane and Andy’s encouragement, she finally does, and it turns out to be a book on dressage. (I could have told you he wasn’t sending back your letters, Toby. Neal’s way too awesome a boyfriend for that.)
The next weekend, Toby heads out to Randy’s ranch with slightly more openness to getting to know Barnaby. When she gets there, Barnaby’s already being ridden: by Neal. They talk, Neal helps Toby try out some of the dressage techniques, and they end the day with dinner and a movie. All is well in the Houston-Worthington union once again.
The next morning, Toby wakes up with horrible abdominal pain. Turns out this new type of horseback riding has used new muscles she never knew she had. Jane gets on one of her random cleaning benders and starts picking up the detritus around her bed. Encouraged by their newly spacious room, Andy starts doing high leaps around the room. She lands each one perfectly, until she doesn’t, falling onto her right foot with a loud crack.
Meredith takes them to the ER, where it turns out that Andy has broken a small bone in her foot. The (female, which I appreciate) doctor says she’ll be fine. They take her to the school infirmary, where we are told the headmistress PA is waiting for her. Really? For a foot fracture? Andy proceeds to spend a week in the infirmary. Really? FOR A FOOT FRACTURE? These people seem to get the longest stays approved for the most minor ailments. The Canby Hall students (and most of the staff) visit Andy every day, overrunning her private room with cards, stuffed animals, and books. Andy is a model patient, exuding bravery and positivity to all who enter. When people tell her they feel so bad for her, she responds that pain is just part of life for a dancer. Ms. Johnson is the new nurse in charge (I guess Nurse Zinger rode off into the sunset) and Andy cheerfully talks her ear off.
Meanwhile, Toby intercepts a package for Jane. They end up opening it together, and it’s full of fancy riding clothes in Toby’s size. Turns out they’re a present from Neal, and Jane has been secretly sneaking through Toby’s wardrobe for the correct measurements. Jane makes Toby wear the whole outfit to the infirmary to show it off for Andy. They also run into Shelley, who’s with Merrie and one of the other actresses from the play. Shelley’s as morose as ever. Toby feels the gift is too expensive to accept, so she sends the clothes back to Neal to give to his sister.
Later, alone in the infirmary, we learn that Andy’s merry ways have merely been a facade. Secretly, she is terrified that her injury means her career as a ballerina is over. She decides to try a simple dance step. We are told that she “could not do it.” She is suddenly convinced that her fear has become reality.
When Jane and Toby next come to visit, gone is the sunny, upbeat Andy. In her place is an inert shell, lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling. Shocked, they ask her what’s wrong, and she responds that oh, it’s nothing, just that she’ll never be able to dance again. Jane slips out to find Ms. Johnson, who is in her bathrobe getting ready to have a shower. (She lives in the infirmary?) Naturally she’s ready to drop everything for a 407 girl. A few minutes later, the nurse shows up in Andy’s room wearing a much sloppier old robe, curlers in her hair, and cold cream all over her face. Taking advantage of their shock and pretending not to notice their giggles, she shoos Jane and Toby off, saying that she and Andy will have a good long talk. It works for an evening, but soon Andy is back down in the dumps.
Toby goes to Randy’s to ride Maxine, but it turns out Barnaby’s not getting enough exercise. (Dear Neal’s Aunt: Perhaps you should better vet your boarding services before you entrust what I assume is a very expensive animal to them. Just a thought.) Using the dressage book Neal sent her, Toby and Randy amateurishly exercise poor Barnaby, who has really put up with more than enough by this point.
Andy continues to believe, despite what everyone is telling her, that she can’t dance anymore. Her roommates beg her to try, but she’s too afraid to be proven right, so she doesn’t try at all. Jane and Toby decide to call her parents. They collect quarters for a week until they have enough to call Chicago. (File under “Ways life was harder back then.”) They call from the lounge, where Shelley is reading the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. If she’s such a hermit, why is she hanging out in the lounge instead of her free room? Anyway, they tell Andy’s dad about Andy’s depression. He tells them he’s on his way to Canby Hall, and to immediately get Andy a triple banana split with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream, cherries, pineapple, glazed walnuts, and real whipped cream, none of that artificial stuff. Ugh, eating something like that all by myself would definitely get me an infirmary bed for a week.
Mr. Cord surprises Andy later that day. Turns out he’s brought piping hot ribs with him on the plane, as well as barbecue sauce, coleslaw, fried onions, and apple pie. Jane, Toby, Maggie, Dee and Ms. Johnson join them for a feast. Matt is also there, and it’s the first time he’s meeting Andy’s dad, who approves of him. But Mr. Cord has more important things on his mind than his daughter’s boyfriend, as he’s disturbed by the obvious change in his normally optimistic Andy. He asks her to do the dance she always does at home, leading to this entertaining exchange:
“Isn’t it called the tarantula? No, that’s a spider.”
“The dance is a tarantella, Daddy. But I’m afraid I can’t do it anymore.”
“Andrea, nobody but you says you can’t dance. You’ve just got something stuck in your head. Here, let me give you a good shake and get it out of there.”
“I want to see a tarantella before I leave here.”
“That’ll be a long time, Daddy. Mother will miss you.”
After dinner, Mr. Cord, Merrie, Jane and Toby are discussing the situation in the Baker House lounge. Mr. Cord wants to take Andy home. The others argue against it. Unbeknownst to them, Shelley is there again. What is she, a ghost now? She is stunned into self-awareness via her eavesdropping as she realizes that Andy is hurt, that she hadn’t even noticed, and that she’s been concerned with nothing but herself ever since the play closed. (I would argue “ever since she was born,” but why quibble.) Shelley slips out into the night.
Over at the infirmary, Ms. Johnson tells Andy that she has a visitor who, even though it’s late, absolutely insists on seeing her. Surprise! It’s Margaret Thatcher. (No, actually, it’s Shelley. At the time of this book’s writing, Margaret Thatcher was too busy running the United Kingdom. But I’m sure she would have come if she could.) Andy is hesitant, but Shelley says, “Please let me come in, Andy. Don’t be as awful as I’ve been,” and Andy is powerless to resist such a moving entreaty.
Shelley tells her that she overheard Andy’s dad and friends talking about her. Andy responds that she’s just fine, thanks. Shelley says Andy is right to be angry, that she’s been acting like a spoiled brat, “moping around in that princess’s room as though I were a princess myself, a princess who has lost her whole kingdom.” Puh-leeze. Thankfully, Andy’s reaction is,
Shelley immediately stops and apologizes, saying she’s so ashamed of herself she’s spewing nonsense. Andy asks if she remembers that when she was in pain, Andy tried to help her and was rebuffed. Shelley says she does remember, and if her mother knew how rude and unkind she had been to every single person at Canby Hall …
Then why did you do it, I have to ask?
She goes on to say that she knows she’s been too selfish for too long to expect forgiveness. So she gets to the point of why she’s there, which is that Andy thinks she can’t dance. But Shelley tells her that she heard Andy’s dad and friends talking, alone, when there was no reason to put on a brave face for Andy. They all still believed Andy could dance. “You still have all your talent. I’m sure your ambition is still burning even though one piece of temporary bad luck has you convinced that there’s no point in being ambitious.” Then she stops, realizing that what she’s saying applies to herself too.
After this magical moment, Shelley takes her leave. Andy cautiously decides to try a dance step. She does it, and finds that “a lightness, a happiness, was winging through her.”
The next day, Mr. Cord returns to Chicago and Andy returns to Room 407. The housekeeper (now back to Ms. Betts) tells them they have a delivery, which turns out to be banana splits for three. Who delivers banana splits, especially in sleepy little Greenleaf, I’d like to know? The roommates start catching up with each other. Toby has decided that dressage was interesting, but she’s not going to be a dressage rider. Shelley stops by to say goodbye. She’s finally ending her free ride and going, I don’t know, somewhere else, I really don’t care. But she admits to her bad behaviour, apologizes, and the girls forgive her. (They’ll regret that by book #33, but never mind.) And then, with some cheesy wrap-up, finis.
Let me finish as I began: UGH. Taking a merely unlikable character and making her intolerable is something of a feat. While I go take a long shower and scrub my brain, get your popcorn ready for our next installment: Beau Stockton is back! How-DEE, pardner!