I figure I’m either the best person or the worst person to tackle our Mary Anne’s autobiography, because I’m a lot more sympathetic to her than a lot of you. But I should clarify. When I say I’m sympathetic, it’s not that I don’t think she’s a neurotic basket case in need of serious therapy, whose hyper-sensitivity frequently results in hyper-self-centeredness, and whose sweetness is often an informed attribute driven largely by passive-aggression coupled with an unhealthy need to please people and an equally unhealthy terror of disappointing them. It’s just that I see all that, and it’s like, Mary Anne, c’est moi. Than I go cry and pet my cats. (Okay, not really. Well, not the crying part.)
But also, Mary Anne happens to press a lot of my personal/literary buttons, in terms of complicated father/child relationships and people who have to investigate their own pasts. (I have 100,000 words on my desk drive to that effect, so. . .when I imagine myself being interviewed on NPR about my fabulous novel, because that's how my wildest fantasies roll, I debate whether or not to admit Mary Anne and Richard Spier as being early but not insignificant influences. Although probably not as much as Jeff Greene and his father.)
Also, I love Richard FOR REALS. By the admittedly rock-bottom standards of parenting in the Brook, he’s a winner. And also a basket case who probably also needed some therapy, but, you know, I'm clearly kind of into that. There’s obviously been some retconning here to make Mary Anne and Richard a lot closer and sweeter than they were in Mary Anne Saves the Day, but I won’t complain. (In a psychologically realistic novel, it actually would be pretty plausible that even a close father and daughter might hit some bumps in their relationship as the daughter hit puberty, but nah, this is just half-assed laziness.) I recently went on a fanfic binge and read about 95% of the Baby-Sitters Club fic at AO3 (skipping mostly confusing crossovers), and there is some surprisingly good fic featuring Richard. Who knew?
And just saying--I did a google image search for “Richard Spier Ann Martin” in case any other poor sap had scanned in some illustrations, and one of the first hits was this:
So, my own Richard Spier/daddy/(Giles) issues aside, feel free to chime in if you think I’m being too soft on Ms. Spier. This is kind of just a heads-up that she might not get the full filleting another snarker might provide.
Cover. We’ve got a tea cup, a pair of ballet slippers, a locket with. . .Alma’s picture? Looking totally unlike the interior illustrations? IDK. A picture of wee!Mary Anne sans the trademark Braids of Paternal Oppression, a creepy looking cat figurine (?) and a pretty lackluster patchwork square. I feel like Mary Anne would be offended by there being so much pink. It’s not the worst iteration of her short haircut, but it’s not the best, either.
Tigger wakes Mary Anne up demanding food. I’m either the luckiest or the worst cat owner, because my cats don’t do that, no matter how weird my sleep schedule gets. Once I’m up, it’s meow-meow-meow-MEOW until they are served, but they don’t wake me up. Anyway, Mary Anne gives Tigger his “yummy chicken parts” and pours a bowl of cereal for herself, musing she would really like pancakes or French toast (the copy editors at Scholastic do not capitalize French toast, which I find disproportionately annoying) but cannot spare the time because she is just SO busy with her autobiography. Sure, drama queen. She wants to finish it and turn it in early for. . .reasons.
Then she says, much more overtly than I think she ever has before, that she “actually enjoys school and doesn’t mind doing homework,” and that just by looking at her, you can tell she’s the “quiet, studious” type. Yea stereotyping! She goes on to describe herself as the short, dark-haired girl watching from the sidelines, the one who’s dressed conservatively. (Well, except when she omits pants.) I am vaguely touched by the whole mentally seeing yourself on the sidelines thing, cause, you know, issues. Then she says she cries a lot over movies, books, limited time offers, long distance commercials, spilled milk (or orange juice), reunion specials of tv series, and movies going back into the Disney vault. Oh, and her friends’ problems. “I’ve also been known to shed a few tears over my own problems. But more on that later.”
We’re all just breathless with anticipation.
Blah blah best friends ever, Watson’s mansion, Dawn and Sharon, farmhouse which might be haunted and also has a genuine, albeit not-currently-used outhouse. Yay? Mary Anne and Abby are totally opposite in personality, but both have dead parents. (That’s pretty much what it says.) “By the way, Abby has a twin sister, Anna, but Anna isn’t a member of the BSC.” So she’s not, you know, a real person. Mallory, Jessi, and Shannon exist, although Shannon barely squeaks in what with her failure to attend SMS.
Ah, Logan. “He’s kind, intelligent (o rly?), sweet, sensitive (wat), funny, understanding (WAT) and. . .he’s my boyfriend.” She describes their dramatic break-up as a “big misunderstanding about how much time we were going to send together,” but now their relationship is awesome. Whatever.
The mail carrier (who, shockingly, is male) brings by a piece of priority mail, which turns out to be a baby book from Grandma Verna out in the cornfields. (Oh, we’ll get to her later.) Mary Anne is all excited to read the entries, and of course, Alma had neat handwriting, because that’s totally a genetic trait. Anyway, baby Mary Anne drank “a lot” of formula and slept “most of the time.”
I do find it funny that considering how judgmental and pseudo-environmental and old-fashioned she is that no one in StepfordBrook breastfeeds. I suppose it’s because aside from the horrors of having to use the word “breast” in a book for young girls and the risk of suggesting that thirteen-year-olds are not completely superior substitutes for mothers, it’s because Ann’s “old-fashioned” is permanently stuck in the 50s, when formula was the way of the future that would help us beat down the Reds.
Anyway, Alma writes “Mary Anne gave me her first genuine smile today. What a beautiful smile. What a beautiful baby,” and MA, of course, bursts into tears. Which is legit. But of course she’s still sitting on the stairs weeping and wailing when Richard and Sharon show up and freak out a bit, although honestly, I think living with Mary Anne at some point you’d assume “oh, that ASPCA commercial must have come on again” and not “OMG Dawn’s DEAD isn’t she?” which is pretty much how Sharon reacts.
Mary Anne assures them that Dawn, Jeff, and she are all alive and in one piece, and explains about the baby book, and then inner monologues a whole bunch of neuroses about not mentioning her mother in front of her dad because it makes him sad, and not mentioning her in front of Sharon in case it makes her feel awkward, but Sharon snaps out of her pot-paranoia to sweetly enough sit down with Mary Anne and say (she) Sharon is sorry that she (Mary Anne) is sad. Richard asks if Mary Anne’s autobiography will be sad, and Mary Anne says it won’t be, because her life isn’t sad, and she is happy and lucky. So Richard says she makes him feel happy and lucky, and Sharon says “me too,” and it’s probably good Stacey isn’t here because we’re heading into insulin shock territory. But no, it’s kind of sweet.
Then Richard, all verklempt, excuses himself to say he needs to put the groceries away before the frozen things melt, and Mary Anne informs us that Richard looves putting away groceries and alphabetizing the spice rack. D’awww. Sharon offers to help, but MA and Richard are like “Lol, no.” And he’s even going to make [F]rench toast and ham for brunch, so Mary Anne can work on her autobiography AND have yummy breakfast food. She IS happy and lucky. Armed with a fresh box of Kleenex, she gets to work.
Part the First—From Birth to Six Years
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I swear MA’s annoying cursive is just about half a point bigger in this book. It disturbs me. Anyway, the opening lines of her autobiography are “I wish with all my heart that I could remember the first few months of my life. Because if I did, I would remember my mother.”
Spoiler alert: Mary Anne is, iirc, the only sitter to get a full on A+ on her bio, and I think right there that might have done it. Seriously, her teacher is like “oh, crap, we’re in Lifetime movie territory here!” (Although maybe the fact that her teacher has her exact same handwriting led to some bias.) But seriously, dead mom in the second sentence? I don’t know whether that was Machiavellian manipulation or just big-eyed innocence, but well-played, Ms. Spier. Well-played.
Richard says Mary Anne was a “quiet and sweet baby” and he hated having to go to work because he just wanted to stay and watch her. Awww. Then MA sensitively says he must have had to stay home a lot when her mother was sick and he agrees, adding that Alma wanted Mary Anne with her all the time, so they kept the crib right by her bed. (I have a feeling that Ann thinks this is wild and crazy dedication and not what a ton of new parents do anyway, but seriously, I can’t really mock a dying woman, her grieving husband, and their infant. I do have some standards.)
That said, the part of me that’s spent way too much time picking texts apart kind of wants to know exactly what happened to Alma. (I say “exactly,” like anymore thought went into this than Ann musing, “hey, I need a tragedy. . .I’ll kill off a Mom, it always works for Disney! Let’s see, death in childbirth, car crash, attacked by malevolent birds. . .oh, hey, cancer. That’s bad, right?”) I will do a lot of unnecessary “research” for some snarks (especially if you count Google image searches), but even I am not prepared to try to tease out life expectancy rates for various kinds cancers in young women in whatever huge span of time contains the year Mary Anne was born in. But seriously, it must have been a hell of an aggressive cancer. Like, did they find out while she was pregnant and she forewent chemo, which would give Mary Anne whole new levels of angst?
Oh, well. There’s a picture of Alma and MA which is cute enough, although I note that the illustrator hasn’t chosen to make Alma stereotypically ill. She is, of course, very svelte, because surely all Good Stoneybrook moms come home from the hospital at pre-pregnancy fighting weight.
Anyway, Mary Anne lives in Iowa for several months, where Verna says she was “clingy” but so were they. Bill would carry Mary Anne around while he would “go off to the fields to look at the corn”—because that’s what farmers do, look at corn—and Verna would take her into town in her stroller. I begin to suspect that maybe Mary Anne is not so baby-crazed as we’ve been led to believe, since she claims the rest of her baby book is filled with “mostly boring details” and asks Verna if it bothered them when infant Mary Anne “cried and stuff.” And of course, Verna says no, both because they missed Alma so much but also because MA was such an easy baby, which is kind of a pet peeve of mine (although not as bad as saying she was a “good baby”). My niece had to be held upright for one to two hours after every feeding so she could digest until she was about eight months, and everyone was still pretty damn crazy about her.
Mary Anne’s first memory is when she’s back in the Brook, being baby-sat by someone and then running to greet Richard at the door, remembering how cold his face was and how happy she was to see him, which is pretty darn cute. Conveniently, Mysterious Baby-Sitter documented this for posterity.
MA is pretty cute, although I think they may have borrowed the model for Emily Michelle. Note the lack of trademark braids. Richard is also pretty cute and OMG so young. (Okay, I’m officially old now. But I’d hit that. Seriously, he looks like a ton of the young lawyers I know. He’s not as rakishly bearded as in the graphic novel, but still pretty cute.) I tried to reason out once that if Sharon is turning 43 in Mary Anne and the Great Romance, Richard must have been about thirty when MA was born, but trying to do math in the Stoneybrook Time Vortex only leads to insanity.
That explains SO MUCH!
Toddler Mary Anne and Richard are basically adorable—Mary Anne plays with Legos on the floor while Richard reads depositions, he plays letter and number games with her, and they watch Sesame Street together on Saturday mornings. Supposedly, Richard’s favorite character was “Letter Man,” like, was that a thing? I have no such memory and can’t find anything on Google, although I think there was a Letter Man on the Electric Company. Seriously, they couldn’t have gone with the Count or Bert or Oscar? He has also already started his obsessive hair-braiding regimen.
(Two of the Richard-centric fanfics I read specifically mentioned Richard learning how to braid hair, although not how he became fixated with it symbolizing Mary Anne’s virtue or whatever.)
He also takes her out to dinner every Sunday so that she can “learn to behave properly in public,” which I think is maybe meant to make him seem stuffy, but is actually kind of awesome. I’m going to guess they eat at Renwick’s.
Mary Anne’s baby-sitters are of the suck, since the Cult can’t baby-sit themselves, so eventually she gets packed off to nursery school, with extra-tight braids. (Oh, Richard. You sad, darling freak.) Richard takes her and Mary Anne is a little freaked out, but he is a good daddy and hangs out on the side of the room while Mary Anne decides storytime, singing, and playing in the dress-up corner are okay. Richard kisses her good-bye and leaves, and she gets all anxious that maybe he’ll forget her and she’ll never see him again and she’s a toddler, how can I snark that? But before she can actually get the tears out, L’il Kristy marches up and affectionately punches her in the shoulder.
I’m admittedly no fan of full-strength K. Ron, but in this book she’s actually kind of adorable, and her protectiveness of Mary Anne is both touching and a precursor to the weird co-dependent, slightly non-sexual but vaguely D/s relationship they seem to have developed by middle school. Anyway, Kristy drags Mary Anne over to the blocks where L’il Claudia is building a tower, and at naptime Kristy plonks her down between the two of them and announces that these are their “permanent rest places.” See, even toddler Kristy is all srs bizness about stupid stuff, but here it’s kind of adorable. Mary Anne is all, “I don’t know what permanent means, but Kristy’s got my back, so she’s already better than my stupid baby-sitters.”
Now that they are in nursery school, the girls have a lot more play dates, which Mary Anne figured thrilled her sitters since they got time off from her. I honestly can’t tell if that’s realistic, self-pitying, or just pathetic. But Mary Anne especially loves to play at Claudia’s and get affection from Mimi, who she thinks is the most wonderful person in the world after her daddy. Aww. According to this, Mimi calls her “our Mary Anne.” That sounds way more awkward to me, but I know nothing about Japanese grammar or syntax, so if that actually sounds more authentic, I’ll buy it. But I do think it seriously undercuts the drama of “my Claudia” catching Mimi cheating on her with Mary Anne in book 4. Anyway, sometimes Mary Anne is happier just cuddling with Mimi than running around with Kristy and Claudia, and after Mimi died, Claudia gave Mary Anne a scarf which “still has that wonderful Mimi smell.”
The girls graduate to kindergarten, which is uneventful, although in Claudia’s book supposedly that teacher was awesome, before they get to first grade and the evil Mrs. Frederickson. (Lol, my middle school best friend-frenemy-nemesis’s last name was Fredrickson. She also “permanently borrowed” some of my BSC books I had to replace as an adult. Clearly it is a Name of Evil. Um, unless it’s any of your names.) Mrs. F yells all day, which Mary Anne finds upsetting. This could be kind of precious princess-y, but I’m with her—in addition to being an emotional basket case, I also have some actual sensory hypersensitivity issues, and certain kinds of noises literally make me start feeling ill, and being stuck in a room all day with a yelling teacher would do it.
There’s a photo of Mimi collecting Claudia, MA, and Kristy, and the illustration meticulously reflects that Mary Anne and Claudia are holding her hands while Kristy tosses a ball in the air, but STILL NO BRAIDS. C’mon, guys. The braids are legitimately one of her character traits. Total fail. But everyone looks pretty good, especially because presumably the Kishis still control Claudia’s wardrobe. Also, WHO WAS CAMERA? Probably poor, neglected Janine.
Claudia and Kristy complain that Mrs. F is mean, but sad little people-pleaser Mary Anne says “it was okay” and gets a gentle hand-squeeze of approval in response. Kristy’s Great Idea is to wear earmuffs. Mimi suggests that possibly Mrs. F was also nervous, but when Claudia says she just knows Mrs. F is always mean, Mimi gently suggests that she should try to think positively. Then we get a paragraph that goes straight to Mary Anne’s dysfunction junction.
“I decided then I would never complain about Mrs. Frederickson to Mimi. I wanted her to see that I would always “think in a positive way.” I wanted Mimi to love me.”
It’s so messed up, and it’s so me! Mary Anne of today adds “Now I know that Mimi would have loved me whether I complained about Mrs. Frederickson or not.” And you think maybe she’s learned something about unconditional love and security and all, but no, it’s because Mimi was the “kindest, most understanding person [she] had ever known,” because it takes an extraordinary person to love a tiny child who is upset because her teacher yells all the time. Seriously, I don’t even know if Ann and Jeanne Betancourt think this is totally normal, or are subtly (ha!) pointing out how Mary Anne is still a neurotic, anxiety-prone, self-esteem-lacking mess. Well, the fact that I used the word “subtly” probably answers that.
At home, Richard is alarmed when Mary Anne reveals she is not loving the first grade so far. Richard very seriously tells her that she will have many different kinds of teachers with different styles and she will have to learn to adjust, and that as long as Mary Anne behaves and does her work, he is sure Mrs. Fredrickson will be fine. Which is not legitimately BAD advice, but probably a little over Mary Anne’s head here. And based on Mrs. F’s upcoming shenanigans, and her work in Claudia’s Book, yeah, this woman probably should not be teaching first-graders. Anyway, Richard winds up his little homily by asking Mary Anne to try her best, and we get another clunker of a peek at MA’s psyche. “I’d do anything for my father, so I promised I’d be a good girl.” Oy. Sign #342 I spend too much time on the internet? That sentence gives me a squick, and also the wiggins.
But she adds she still doesn’t like Mrs. F’s yelling, and Richard kind of misses the point when he says that as long as Mary Anne behaves and works hard, Mrs. F won’t be yelling at her. Which, firstly, is not even entirely true, since I remember lots of times feeling bad when the whole class got yelled at when I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
But more to the point, this is one of those litmus-test how you feel about Mary Anne moments, when she says “I don’t like it when she yells at anyone.” (It must be said, she was yelling at Kristy for fighting with Alan Gray and Claudia for drawing rainbows instead of her work, so yay for one-dimensional naughtiness. Also, while yelling isn’t great for first-graders, and no decent first grade teacher should be so flustered by a six-year-old doodling instead of printing letter As, the tone that multiple brawls are just part for the course is kind of weird.) But anyway, here we have a classic Mary Anne sensitivity tangle, where I think she does genuinely feel upset to see other kids get yelled out, because she projects so vividly how she feels when she fails to be a “good girl,” which ultimately turns her empathy around into total self-absorption, because it’s about her. Like, I don’t think Kristy honestly cares that much, even age six, about Mrs. F, but she cares about Mary Anne being upset, so if Mary Anne gets upset because she imagines Kristy is upset, than Kristy gets upset about Mary Anne being upset and that way madness lies. But to me, because I TOTALLY know I do this, at least in my head, I can’t snark her as hard as some people, or conclude that she doesn’t initially feel genuine empathy. At best, I can hope if she escapes the timelock she will, if not actually grow out of it, at least learn to mask it better.
The rest of Mary Anne's sick sad psyche, as expressed through tea cups, ballet lessons, spectacles, and quilting (we get it Ann, she's the femme-y one) coming up next.
ETA: hey, I managed to snag the scanner at work to get some of the illustrations scanned. The quality's not great, but it can at least illustrate my disgust at the LACK OF BRAIDS.