Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads Beverly Cleary's 1963 novel 'Sister of the Bride', in which Barbara McClane discovers she's more than just a member of the wedding.

Is it possible to write a feminist novel featuring a cunning lace jacket and the baking of many batches of Snickerdoodles? Giving it the old college try is Beverly Cleary, best known for the unsinkable Ramona Quimby, not her many novels of young love — though many of them put as profound a spin on adolescent girldom as Ramona does on a girl's childhood.When we meet Barbara McClane, she is a junior in high school, a scant — in her optimistic view — two years behind her sister Rosemary, who's just announced she's marrying her college beau, Greg. Barbara, painfully stuck at home spatting with her younger brother Gordy, is at that mutable age where one's personality seems as up for debate as health care reform, and Rosemary — a chilly, eminently more sophisticated moon — is currently the tidal draw towards which Rosemary is pulled. While Barbara toils along, hounded by the family Siamese, teased by her father, and seemingly only tolerated by her busy mother, Rosemary is newly slim, getting exposed to Plato and psychology, beloved by a former Air Force captain, and otherwise enjoying all the intellectual and emotional fruits available to a liberated woman of the early 1960s. Barbara is desperate to be similarly liberated, but her own prospects for the future, school- and boy-wise seem dim. Not only are her grades endangering her future at Cal, her current swains are only the moody neighbor Tootie Bodger, a trombonist with a desperate crush on Barbara, and Bill Cunningham, who appears, dashingly, on his Vespa to flirt with Barbara and gobble up all the cookies, then departs before asking her out. But when Rosemary announces her impending wedding, she pounces: "Maybe at last she had found what she wanted to do...get married in two years like Rosemary." If she can't live Rosemary's new, sophisticated life, she can at least, for one day, live her wedding. As befits a dreamer casting about for a dream, Barbara's idea of a wedding is born from the bright pages of magazines she studies busily, involving flowing veils, handsome groomsmen, exquisite flowers, and other celebratory perks. In her world, a wedding is less an event than spiritual Kabuki, aesthetics and accoutrement reflecting the purity and poetry of true love. But Rosemary, newly practical and modern, is irritatingly unwilling to invest in this fantasy. Her post-pillbox view of marriage involves a small wedding, a suit, brown towels, and, ideally, hand-thrown pottery. Engagement rings are "middle-class," presents mean she and Greg will be plagued by "things," and she's going to finish school, not drop out to be a better wife — because Greg thinks school will make her "a better wife and mother." Rosemary and Barbara's mother is bemused, their grandmother aghast, but Rosemary deeply crushed:
She's overdoing it all the way, thought Barbara. No pretty dishes, no pastel linens, that practical suit. The whole thing, from Barbara's point of view, was beginning to sound just plain dreary. If this went on, she and Greg would probably spend their honeymoon picketing something.
But if Rosemary's view of marriage leaves much to be desired, Barbara thinks the vision offered by her mother's generation is even worse. A member of a happy-housewife group called the Amys (Rosemary's college-educated verdict, much to the amusement of her parents, is that the Amys "don't use their minds"), Barbara's mother seems unduly concerned with the price of flowers and the length of the veil, practical matters Barbara thinks should be divorced from the altar's joys. When the Amys give Rosemary a shower complete with dishtowels, sequined oven-mitts and endless fish molds, Barbara lowers the boom: "There was no poetry in their soul. Just recipes." But now Rosemary, who has finally accepted the idea of an engagement ring and veil, is starting to display a dismal household-drudge streak, too. She and Greg secure an apartment where they can exchange rent for being landlords, and Barbara, picturing a sleek, modern building or, alternately, charming old place crawling with plants, is dismayed about the actual digs: a gray, junky apartment with a taxi-yellow bathroom and a Murphy bed, in a building where Rosemary will be stuck lining the garbage cans with newspaper and cooking in the teeny kitchen. She thought the veil signified an acceptance of the frillier realm — but she is again brought down to earth. "And bragging about how she would clean those halls to pay the rent! What was the matter with her anyway? Had the poetry gone out of her soul, too?" But the absolutely nadir occurs when Rosemary, who, in her new sophistication, is usually a dependable co-Snickerer at the Amys and her mother's generation, starts, appallingly to soften towards them:
"...but next semester I think I'll join the Dames." "And what are the Dames?" demanded Barbara, beginning to undress. "A club for wives of students," answered Rosemary. "What do they do?" Barbara was always curious about university life. "Oh—things like having someone talk on nutrition and how to get the most out of the food dollar," said Rosemary. At least this was on a higher plane than the Amys, who were inclined to exchange cooky recipes. It was evidence that the Dames used their minds. "And at the end of the semester there is a party," continued Rosemary with a mischievous smile. "That is when the girls who work while their husbands go to school are awarded their Ph.T. degree." Barbara had heard of a Ph.D. degree, but never of a Ph.T. This was a new one. "What does that stand for?" she asked, pulling on her nightgown. "Putting Hubby through," answered Rosemary, laughing. Barbara groaned. "They sound every bit as bad as the Amys. Worse, even." "Maybe," agreed Rosemary, "but they have fun." She thought a moment before she said, "And so do the Amys."
It's interesting, on the cusp of the feminist movement with its cowl-neck-sporting support groups, Cleary chose to offer a defense of the women's support groups that already did exist. Gazing with bemusement on the psychobabble-spouting co-eds in muumus who think women should use their minds but can't finish a dress, Cleary, through Barbara, emphasizes that the Amys are more than smug Hockey moms (whose hypocrisy I imagine Cleary would happily skewer, too):
There was actually a variety of women in the room—the Amy who wore leather sandals and wove her own skirts, another who was active in the League of Women Voters, the mother whose calm was never disturbed by her six children, a mother who wanted to write but could not find time, an Amy whose rough hands and deep tan were the results of hours spent in her hillside garden.
There might be something silly about sequin-trimmed oven mitts — but it's not clear it's any less silly than only wanting hand-thrown poetry and brown towels. Cleary's housewives, and Rosemary, aren't just housewives—Barbara's mother works, both for money and enjoyment, and if Rosemary rolls her hair, she rolls it while studying Plato. Even Barbara has to admit that the Amys, who take on the flowers, food and sewing needs of the wedding, have impressive and useful skills: "The Amys had many talents...Barbara and her mother were most grateful of all to the Amy who dropped in to admire the wedding presents, and watched Millie stolidly sewing her way through the sea-spray organza, and simply took the whole thing away from her and that morning had returned it, complete and pressed." This may explain why, playing at wifely helpmeet, Barbara starts to chafe at Bill, who kills his chances with her when he has the audacity to blow past cookies and bring her a shirt to mend because she seems so "domestic":
She discovered she was tired of baking cookies for that—cooky hound. She was tired of trying to win him, and as for her daydreams about getting married someday, she found them so silly she was embarrassed even thinking about them. Imagine living in an apartment like Rosemary's with Bill Cunningham and washing his socks. Never, never, never!
Domesticity, Barbara is learning, isn't a coy blind thrown up to catch a man. It's a battery of practical skills — or, at a level that strains towards its own poetry, a dingy, fond expression of love:
Not everything about Rosemary's life was wrong. There was Greg. And marriage was not something out of the slick and colorful pages of a magazine. It was not just parties and new clothes and flowers and a wedding veil....It was a lot of other things, too, like love and trust and living within one's income and, in Rosemary and Greg's case, putting their educations ahead of their immediate comfort. Why, Rosemary was prepared to do all of this cheerfully, even gaily, and it had not even occurred to her that she was being brave or self-sacrificing. She was doing it because she loved Greg and had faith in his future. And for the first time the thought came to Barbara that Greg was lucky to be marrying her sister.
By the end of the book, Barbara has happily tosses aside her bouquet dreams — as well as her desire to follow in Rosemary's footsteps. She's not going to pin her future on a hazy groomsman, she's going to figure out what kind of people she likes and what kind of person she is. And, as Barbara looks forward to figuring out if prefers Tootie to Bill and what courses she'd like to take at Cal, in its greatest irony, a cheery book about an early wedding becomes an argument for anything but. • • • • • But just because Beverly Clearly cleverly slipped her feminism in on the sly doesn't mean you don't have to fling off your undergarments and set them afire on occasion just to keep the powers that be fully alert. I mention today's NPR bra-burning story because SHELF PLEASURING fans may have pricked up their ears at the mention of one of the rabble-rousers, Alix Kate Shulman, whose MEMOIRS OF AN EX-PROM QUEEN is one of the more fun (explicitly) feminist novels ever written. It's replete with dirty losses of virginity in parking lots and sexy snorkeling, and I highly recommend. Thanks to whatever Amazon reader provided this cover scan: Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages On to the Plotfinder of two weeks ago. Strangely enough, NO ONE knew it, or everyone was too obsessed with incest to attend to it at that moment. Anyone who wants to take a crack at duck imprinting is MORE than welcome to go for it. For this week, I thought we'd try a different kind of Plotfinder, one hatched by my 19 months of rummaging through the 9 trillion books that will appear in what I currently enjoy calling THE BOOK. Welcome to FACEFINDER! What is Facefinder? Well In the old days, YA covers used to wend towards photographs or paintings OF photographs, a technique that has sadly been entirely obviated by Photoshop. Anyway, some of these cover models were child actors...and some went on to become FAMOUS PERSONAGES. Or at least, I think they did. I can assure you that the first of these covers IS actually the actor (she is one of those actresses who insists on being called actors) in question. The next, I am 90% sure is the person I think it is, and the third, I just like to believe is. In any case, can you name these three? First person to get them all correct (i.e. agree with me) wins a column choice. As always, put your answer in the comments, or email them to me at jezziefinelines@gmail.com. BEHOLD! Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages Now, for next month's reading. In the upcoming weeks, please look forward to: Next Friday: Belles on their Toes (guested by the beautiful and talented Laura Lippman) The Friday after: A Ring of Endless Light and the next Friday.... And This is Laura! Speaking of THE BOOK. Yes, the Book! Do you want to be the first to hear any announcements, goodies, info or planned devilment thereof? (-on? -in? -abouts?) Of course you do! Especially since I will be ANNOUNCING THE TITLE, AND SUBSCRIBERS WILL FIND OUT WHAT IT IS FIRST, IF I CAN FIGURE OUT HOW TO SET UP A MAILING LIST! To get on the mailing list, you may click here to send an email to sign up (thanks to Erika V. for THE POP-UP CODE!] or simply send an email to jezziefinelines@gmail.com with the words OBVIOUSLY I AM GOING TO KNOW FIRST in the subject line. I am sort of in love with this title and eager to share it with you, and I hope you will love it too. I also need your help. (This is the longest afterward EVER; I apologize.) I am in need of hi-res scans for these two covers. Do you have them? Do you have a scanner that can do 360 dpi, too? You are the best. Please email them to me at jezziefinelines@gmail.com. Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages Sister of the Bride: Veiled Messages Do you have any other demands, desires or prognostications? Terrif! Simply email me at jezziefinelines@gmail.com to let me know. I cannot answer every email (marvelous intern candidates, you will hear from me soon!!!!!!), but trust that I use them ALL to subvert the dominant paradigm. Sister Of The Bride Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag] Earlier: Bridge To Terabithia: Troubling The WatersFlowers In The Attic: He Ain't Sexy, He's My BrotherA Little Princess: A Reversal Of Four BunsTiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos CorrenHomecoming: A Dicey ProspectGo Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase: Life's A Bitch And So Is The Governess
Stranger With My Face: Stop Projecting
Happy Endings Are All Alike: The Price Of Fault
The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
Deenie: Brace Yourself
A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die