Right, so The Penderwicks on Gardam Street. I've realised that I never got around to doing a rave write-up about The Penderwicks, and I'm certainly not going to manage to do any kind of job on that now, but it's a book about a family (4 girls, aged from 12 down to 4, their father, and Hound) and it's a book about other children's books and it'll remind you of all your favourite children's family books - E. Nesbit and Enright's Melendys and Streatfield's familes and Edward Eager and The Swallows and Amazons and I'm sure I've forgotten a few. (The two books inspired in me a mad impulse to reread every children's classic I'd ever read and enjoyed, in order to spot the allusions - was that tomato sandwich in the first a nod to Harriet the Spy? And the black watch Skye nearly buys in the hospital gift shop in the Prologue of The Penderwicks on Gardam Street - surely that's to the Fossils? Or have I confused it with something else? And so on and so forth.) I was left after reading the first deeply worried about the eldest, Rosalind, and her loving dependability and taking on of responsibility. This despite the fact that the Latin-spouting, mathematical father is a wonder, not a Victorian broken-hearted widower who neglects his girls.
The book proper starts the autumn after the first book, with the girls back home, and their Aunt Claire (the perfect aunt, despite what follows) coming to visit, with presents. I started my 48 hours latish last night, and before turning off the light, had already marked two passages and entered that wonderful state of reading-happiness some books can give.
So Rosalind handed out the packages. Jane's was indeed books, six of them by Eva Ibbotson, one of her favorite authors. Skye got an impressive pair of binoculars, army issue and with night vision. And Rosalind's gift was two sweaters, one white and one blue.The second passage was the end of the father and Aunt Claire's reading The Sailor Dog to Batty, who makes them sing the song, so I went off to bed with the tune of the song I'd made up when reading the book to Becca and Y.D. firmly stuck in my head. (It's a bit monotonous, to be perfectly honest.) Eva Ibbotson and one of Margaret Wise Brown's dog books - any wonder I went to bed in happy reader mode?
"Two!" she said. "Something is definitely wrong."
"And my books are all hardbound, and two of them I haven't read even once yet," added Jane. These must be Aunt Claire's dying gifts."
The only problem is having far, far too many delights I want to share, having finished now. And then so much of the delight is hard to quote anyway, as it's made up of a lot of little moments which are about how nice these kids are, without being unbearably or unrealistically good. (There's a fair amount of behaviour in the book that decidedly isn't good, although it may be well-meant. Or not so much. But never mean or petty.) There's Rosalind trying to choose one of Shakespeare's sonnets to memorize, knowing that she'll have to recite it to the class, and desperate to find one that nobody will understand at all well enough to know it's about love. Or the play Skye
I have heard (or possibly heard about another book and misapplied to this one) criticism that the book would have more appeal for adults who are channeling their inner reading child-selves than for real children, but I can only say with some certainty that I'd have loved it myself as a child, and with about equal certainty that my two would have loved it. And I'd have had enormous pleasure in reading it to them. The one definite nod over the head of the average child is the woman the father finds himself to date, Marianne. As that's Marianne Dashwood, the adult reader is sniggering helplessly at his reports on her love of walking and dislike of flannel, while younger children wouldn't get it. But though I have some doubt about Aunt Claire's missing the name, I honestly think I'd have been perfectly happy as a child to have had the deception pulled on me along with the girls. And he confesses so beautifully.
Right, so Claire's not spotting Marianne's name, and perhaps a bit of realistic quibbling about the timing of some things in the book. But that's it for the pickiness. And the nice Penderwicks - child and adult - are matched by nice people in other families (Tommy - Nick - Anna and her succession of stepmothers she doesn't bother to keep track of anymore!) and the lovely Iantha, who's a brilliant astrophysicist as well as a - well, read it and see for yourself. I think if nothing else, I'd love this book for the funny and yet real way in which the girls use the word 'honour'. There's 'the family honour', but there's also 'honourable behaviour' - and 'dishonourable' as well - and they care about it, without in any way being goody-goody. Great stuff.