[LISTENED TO: August 2016] The Penderwicks in Spring
We have loved the Penderwick books. But I remember that when this came out, Sarah read it and was disappointed. Not in the quality of the book, but because the story has moved on. This book is set about five years after the action of the previous book.
I totally get Birdsall’s desire to write about Batty rather than her older sisters–to move on from what she has written about for three books. In the previous book Rosalind was more or less absent, so Birdsall is not afraid to progress with her characters. But those characters are so great, that to have them largely absent from the story was so frustrating! I missed them all (So I guess she could take that as a compliment).
Of course, the “new” characters are fun, too. The book is mostly about Batty, but her younger half-brother Ben is older and quite a character (and he gets to show us things from his point of view–the only boy in a family of strong Penderwick girls). And Batty’s father and stepmother have had a new baby, Lydia, who is just climbing out of her crib and is quite a handful.
To update. Rosalind is at college, Skye is a senior, Jane is a junior. There are teenage boys hanging around the house (I love that there are two boys named Donovan but Mr Penderwick believes that there is only one). The boys are there for Jane because Skye wants nothing to do with them–she is still all about science.
As they story begins there is concern about money (although that kind of goes away when more pressing needs come up). But some of those money woes lead them to buying a crazily ugly van, which is all good fun. And to Batty looking for a job, which really moves plot and is mostly good fun.
But the story isn’t all good fun. Because as the story opens up we learn that beloved Hound has died. And Batty is inconsolable, understandably. I cursed at Birdsall for making this such a huge part of the story because it was such a tearjerker. But it does have plot purposes later on. And just as you think it’s over, there’s more death. Good friend Tommy is at war (nothing happens to him, phew) and Lydia’s classroom pet died; Lydia insists on telling everyone she meets that “Goldie put Frank in a box,” which leads to much humorous confusion.
The one thing I didn’t like about Batty, which I guess is just her nature and which means I don’t like her as much as the other girls is that she doesn’t let anything go. She fixates on something and lets it consume her. Batty is convinced that it is her fault that Hound died. We have no reason to believe this is true and no one has told her any such thing, but she got this idea and won’t let it go. She believes that she is incapable of taking care of anything. So even though the family wants another dog, she can’t possibly curse another creature.
While this may be a fair belief for someone to have, in such an open and communicative house as the Penderwicks, this should have been nixed pretty easily. And, frankly Batty spends way too much time believing it. She is a smart girl after all.
But so the perceived money issues mean that Batty feels that she needs to get a job to help out. She’ll do anything but walk dogs, obviously. But when she asks neighbors what kind of work they need done, the only thing anyone needs is dog walking. The nice neighbors have just been given a dachshund who is so obese that she can barely walk. They ask if Batty can give the poor thing some exercise and the dog so enjoys the attention that, despite her concerns, Batty agrees to take on the task.
Soon enough, the little dog (now managing to walk about three blocks) discovers another dog in the woods. This new dog is tangled up, and when Batty rescues him, the owners are so happy (they just moved to town) that they ask her to walk him too. This dog is hilariously timid and his timidity leads to many funny scenes. Now Batty is responsible for two dogs.
Before moving on with the plot, let’s talk about the younger siblings. Ben is very funny. He is easily exasperated, especially by Lydia–who loves Ben so much she keeps running up t him and getting in his way. Ben has to lock his doors and has set up a special knock to keep Lydia out. Lydia speaks only in third person (Susan Denaker does a great job with her voice). And while Ben and Batty get along fabulously you can feel the frustration all over him for growing up in a house full of girls. This is especially true later on when the older girls confide secrets with him and he s just too overwhelmed to deal with anymore of this girl nonsense.
Tommy’s older brother Nick is back from the war for a time and he steps in as kind of father figure in the story (Mr. Penderwick is hardly home). In addition to working the girls really hard –Skye and Jane’s workout regime is brutal, he’s a good “older brother” for Ben. And later, when things with Batty go south, he is there for her, too.
And the older siblings? Jane was Jane, although I missed her romanticism (we do get a few nice moments of Jane’s lovestruckness, but I could always use more). Rosalind has broken up with Tommy (what??) and is dating a total tool named Oliver, who is a pretentious film student. (Nick of course would love Rosalind to still be dating his brother, but he is staying out of it–as much as he can, anyway). Oliver provides much comic relief–especially from Mr Penderwick and Lydia (who hits him in the face with food).
And then there’s Skye. Skye is really deep into her studies, but Jeffrey has been pestering her. She loves Jeffrey but only wants to be friends. But he really wants to date her. She’s so mad at him for ruining everything. She banishes Jeffrey from the house (he is studying music in Boston). The rest of the family is bummed at not seeing Jeffrey but they kind of understand Skye’s attitude–although frankly they just wish she would get over it.
Her dismissal of Jeffrey is especially hard on Batty, though. Batty has taken on Jeffrey as her musical mentor. He keeps sending her albums from Boston and they talk about music all the time (since no one else in the family is the least but musical).
She can’t wait to see him because she has suddenly learned that not only can she play piano but she has a pretty good voice, too. This is a happy secret that she doesn’t share with anyone (frankly, too many secrets in this book) because she wants to show it off on her birthday when Rosalind will be home and Jeffrey and the whole family will be at the party
But, the night before Batty is to tell Jeffrey her musical secret, Skye sits Jeffrey down as she to tell him point blank why she can’t date him. And we learn a fairly shocking truth and a shocking misunderstanding. During all of the books, Skye has been the most distant from Batty and the conversation reveals why this is (a misunderstanding that is massive). But Batty overhears this conversation while trying to go to sleep.
And if you thought she was over the top upset about Hound, imagine how over the top upset she is to hear that Skye resents her. Batty spirals out of control, crying all the time (that was a bit annoying) and just hiding in her room.
Batty tries to solve some issues on her own, but she’s not all that smart (Nick rescues her twice). Mostly she is kind of catatonic. It is a bit surprising that no one pieces it together, but they’ve got a lot going on.
There is much happiness at the end in various places (but not in others) and the whole book brought me to tears on many occasions.
And once again, a major thumbs up for Susan Danker, whose reading is just fantastic–although as I mentioned in the past, I have to wonder if her wonderful dramatic reading makes it seem like the characters are more emotional than if I were actually reading the books. It’s hard to say.
So I did enjoy the book quite a lot, even with all of the death. But I definitely missed the older girls and I even missed Mr Penderwick who is one of my favorite minor characters (especially the way Denaker narrates him). He is so calm and wise with his Latin phrases that I would love to see more of him.
I doubt that Birdsall will ever move backwards to fill in the gap years, and I can’t quite see her writing about Jane and Skye in high school, but I hope she doesn’t give up on this delightful series.