First of all, Avriel's fundraiser has been extended until October 6th, so let's keep the donations/shares coming!!!! See the post just below this one for links to info.
Secondly, apologies, but the crappy mystery was overdue at the library, so we're not going to continue it just yet. Sorry for anyone who was looking forward to that shenanigan. By way of apology I have an even crappier book. And I must apologize in advance that this is going to be a bit more of a rage snark in places, because, you know, Ann M. Martin is going to attempt to talk about child abuse.
Chapter One! "'Aah. Alone at last.' We gazed deeply into each other's eyes and smiled happily. And then, the object of my affections began to drool."" This is the third BSC book I've snarked that begins like a bad porno. But it turns out that it's just a baby. Claudia (and her family) are going to babysit for 6-month-old Lynn for an entire week while Russ and Peaches go on vacation.
You heard right. Russ and Peaches are just dumping their infant at Claud's house for a week so they can take a vacation. I'm beginning to feel my chest tighten already, and we haven't even reached the main plot yet.
Peaches has the decency to worry whether this is a good idea: "What if she runs a fever? What if she falls out of her crib?"
Rioko assures Peaches that Claudia will know what to do, since she's a "professional babysitter." So I guess if that poor child falls out of her crib while Claud's at school, Rioko and Janine (I'm not even going to imagine a Stonybrook father handling an infant) will just stand there staring at her until Claud gets home.
Claudia's father assures them that they need a little time off; "You haven't had a vacation since the baby was born!" Wow, no vacation for six months? I'm gonna go hold a candlelight vigil right now. Also, did it not occur to them to go on vacation with their six-month-old daughter? You know, put her in a cute bathing suit and hold her while she dangles her feet in the water? Teach her to build sand castles? The kind of things new parents are supposed to LIKE doing with their kids? Or, since this is the BSCverse, you could just take two or three sitters with you if you wanted. Why are you leaving your only daughter?
Russ heartily agrees that he deserves a vacation, and talks creepily of a sauna that"s "waiting for" his wife as if he's going to throw her in there and leave her to bake.
Claudia tries to soothe Peaches by reciting her instructions for warming formula. Again with the weird reverse-breast-fetish; I don't understand why Peaches wouldn't have just pumped for Lynn... then again, she's going away for a week's vacation without her baby, so maybe she's one of those yuppie moms who didn't breastfeed for fear of her breasts sagging. Or maybe Russ stopped her from breastfeeding for that reason; I get nasty control freak vibes from him, which is quite odd considering that the Russ and Peaches family (I don't know if they ever got a surname and I'm too lazy to look it up) are supposed to be the contrasting "normal" family for this masterpiece.
Claud carries poor baby Lynn upstairs by herself and tells us her life story. Janine gets all of one sentence: "Janine is a genius." Mimi gets more exposition than Janine, and she's been dead for a good long time now. Then, Claud glances at Lynn and wonders when she'll be ready to "ditch the formula" and eat mallomars. I reiterate, Lynn is supposed to be the shining example of a non-abused child. My heart is breaking for her already.
Oh, and Claudia tells us that "Good genes run in our family. Look at me. I'm perfectly healthy with clear skin and a decent figure." This speech, which manages at the same time to be asinine, vain and creepily pro-eugenic, comes out of the mouth of the girl who spent weeks feeling traumatized about babysitting for those white supremacist kids so many years ago. And it sounds even more appalling when she follows it up with talking about some new BSC charges, including the recently returned Lou McNally: "At the time, we thought she was the "worst kid ever." That's what Kristy called her. It turns out she was just unhappy." Wow, an unhappy foster kid? What next?
Claud also mentions that the Nicholls family has just moved into the Addisons' old house, and wonders if they'll end up becoming new clients.
Chapter two! The sitters arrive and take turns passing around the baby and feeding her formula. Lynn endures this commotion without so much as a peep of protest, which is odd considering six months is quite often the age when stranger freakouts begin. They make a grand show of burping Lynn as well, which I find odd... granted I breastfeed Rosie, but I didn't have to burp her after the first two months or so.
Claudia muses about what each of the sitters must have been like as babies, which serves as our obligatory Chapter Two exposition. Claud assures the audience that "We're excellent sitters: punctual, responsible and caring." The only positive thing I can say about this chapter is that Ellen Miles manages to get the club workings and the notebook exposition all into one little paragraph, and she doesn't even mention the kid-kits.
At the end of the meeting, there's a call from Mrs. Nicholls, and Claudia gets the job.
Kristy also mentions that there's going to be a Saint Patrick's Day parade in a few weeks, and they should get the children to participate somehow. I don't know which is sillier: that Ann Belief-In-An-Afterlife-Is-A-Mental-Illne
Chapter three! Mr. Nicholls opens the door and smiling greets Claud. He's wearing a nice blue suit, and he has a mustache. This randomly makes me laugh because when we were little, my brothers and I came up with an idiotic theory that mustaches caused people to become eeeeeeeevil, whereas clean shaven faces did not, and beards cancelled out the evil of the mustache. We had a huge running list of examples: Hitler = mustache = eeeeevil; Jesus = beard = good; Stalin eeeeeevil; Pope John Paul II good; John Wilkes Booth eeeeevil; Lincoln good and so forth. This system incidentally started because several of the creepy men in my mother's Charismatic prayer group had enormous mustaches, and we did not like them. I'm not sure what it says about Watson in the upcoming season of Sherlock, however. But I digress.
Claudia thinks it's weird that Mrs. Nicholls hadn't answered the door, but then she remembers that Mrs. Nicholls works at the library with her (Claudia's) mother. I don't know why this detail is thrown in-- it's as though it's supposed to be the first clue that Mr. N. is a control freak, but then it was edited back into being innocuous. She also mentions that she misses Lynn, leading me to wonder who in the name of sanity is watching that poor child and why the BSC didn't decide to take her along on sitting jobs like they did with Elvira the goat.
Mr. Nicholls makes the children, Nate and Joey, say "YES SIR" in loud voices when he tells them that Claudia is in charge and will tell him how they behaved. This is played as if it's another scary clue to Mr. N's true nature, but honestly I know some standard weird fun dads that would do the same thing (in jest). Here we get to one of the fundamental problems of BSC books in general: "normal" people are portrayed as so unbearably bland that the characters we're supposed to hate just sound loveably quirky much of the time. Not that things aren't going to get a lot worse.
Mr. N. tells his sons they may have one cookie each and should remember where they're allowed to eat them. Again, this is played up as if it's worrisome, but I don't really think limiting kids' sugar intake or having them eat only in certain rooms is a bad idea. I went through most of my childhood not allowed to eat in any carpeted room of the house, in case of stains, and I don't think that's unreasonable.
After Mr. N. leaves, Joey remarks that he hopes his father is on the way to a job interview.
Nate snaps that that's a bad thing to say.
Claud tries to engage them in conversation about their dad's work, but they don't seem to want to talk about that, so she leads them into the kitchen for a snack. First, the children make her take off her shoes in case of mud, which Claudia again thinks is strange and I again don't see what the problem is. I do the same thing with my toddler; I would find it kind of cute if Rosie assumed that everyone who came into the house had to follow the same rule and made the babysitter take off her sneakers. Then, because we're low on costume porn so far, Claud gushes about her Pumas: "totally hip 70s-type sneakers-- very cool at SMS."
Claudia is next weirded out by the kitchen because it's so clean. The boys take one cookie each and decline milk. This is also treated as suspicious, even though for all Claudia knows the boys are allergic.
Next, Claudia asks them to go over to Stephen Stanton-Cha's house
so she can see Stacey so that they can play with him. The boys are nervous about leaving the house without Dad's permission. I've already mentioned that, as a mom myself, I would not be at ALL okay with a babysitter leaving the house with my two kids and taking them to the house of somebody I didn't know, but of course this is treated as another clue that something is seriously wrong with the Nicholls family.
Claud finally convinces the boys to come with her, even though they're visibly scared at the idea. She is-- you guessed it-- alarmed that they push their chairs in as they leave the table.
At the Stanton-Chas' house, Joey and Nate can't enjoy themselves, because they keep jumping up every time a car goes by. They clearly are not comfortable and not having a good time because they know they're violating one of their family's rules, but Supersitter Claud won't take them home for quite awhile.
Now, it does turn out that Claudia is right to be suspicous and Mr. Nicholls is a total over-the-top abusive douchebag. But I really don't think this chapter is a fair set-up at all. AMM is trying to convince the audience that there's something abusive about being a neat freak and an attentive parent. I'm not a neat freak, but plenty of perfectly nice parents I know attempt to teach their children to be tidy and polite to authority figures. Having tidy, mannerly kids instead of unruly slobs like the Pikes is usually considered a GOOD thing.
Mrs. Nicholls comes home and turns pale at the news that her children left the house without their father's permission-- and once again, for all Claudia knows she's just fretting at the thought of her kids wandering around a new neighborhood without the knowledge of a parent. Claud doesn't have time to think about this for long, though, because she's got to run so as not to be late for a BSC meeting. Based on how fast she runs out of there, I'd say CLAUDIA was the one in an abusive relationship at this point and not Mrs. Nicholls.
Chapter four! "Four the next couple of days, I forgot about the Nichollses. I have to admit I didn't think once about Joey or Nate. Why?" Because you decided to be a normal teenager and not obsess about other people's children? No, it's because she spent all her time with Lynn. And if you think Claud's mom took some time off of work to watch Lynn, you haven't been in Stonybrook for very long: Rioko takes Lynn into the children's room in the library every morning and abandons her in the care of a children's room assistant. I know that some parents use the library for free babysitting and the poor harried librarians end up working as untrained, unpaid daycare providers; I see things like that at our local library way too often. I just can't believe anyone would try it with an infant, and I don't believe for one minute that a LIBRARIAN would do it. Shame on everyone.
Anyway, at the next BSC meeting Mrs. Nicholls calls to ask if Claud can be their regular sitter, and if she can come this week. For some reason Kristy doesn't throw a shitfit about this. Maybe she's deliberately been toned down for this book so that no one will draw the obvious parallels between herself and Mr. Nicholls.
At the sitting job, Claudia remembers how nervous the children were at somebody else's house and mercifully decides to sit for them at their own home as she was hired to do in the first place. She brings a kid kit.
Ryan longingly asks if it contains a puppy, which he's always wanted.
The children look worried when Claud dumps the entire kid-kit onto the floor of the living room. I'm a complete slob; the living room of my tiny apartment has to be cordoned in two so the toddler can play safely with her toys on one side of the sofa while my art studio has a messy home on the other side. But I would still also be pissed if someone I left in charge of my children dumped an entire cardboard carton of goodies onto my clean floor. Even my Rosie is learning how to take toys out one at a time, Claud. Also, maybe you could take a hint that for whatever reason, these people like to keep the house tidy. A "professional babysitter" would play along.
The boys delight in an Encyclopedia Brown book and a Star Wars figurine. I wonder if Ann had to have the concept of Star Wars explained to her by Ellen Miles before the book went to press. I also wonder if "See-Threepio' is really called "See-Threepio" instead of "C3PO," but for all I know Ellen Miles is right about this one.
Then Claud is concerned because the boys let her win at checkers. Okay, this is getting into odd territory, but there could still be a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe they like Claudia and are telling her so in a childish way because they're, you know, children.
Claud goes to get paper for coloring, though the boys seem afraid that she's going to disturb Dad's desk. Claud: Mr. Nicholls is a neat freak. Neat freaks are especially territorial about their desks. MOST people are territorial about their desks. I, as mentioned, am a slob, and I hate people messing with my art desk OR my computer. Get a flippin' clue.
Nate interrupts my rant to start sobbing in terror because he accidentally ripped a page of Claud's book. He pleads with her and promises to pay for it while she soothingly assures him it's not a problem. Okay, that one is worrisome and suspicious. One point for Ann.
Claudia wonders if they boys had a terrible experience with another babysitter, which is actually a logical guess. One point for Claud. Then she asks them into the kitchen for a snack again. The boys tell her they're not allowed to have cookies or crackers, because they're Dad's, and they're not allowed to have fruit because it's for after dinner. They settle on celery with peanut butter for a snack. Again, this is a Terrible Sign and makes Claud nervous. Claudia, let me tell you about my little family here. I'm allergic to gluten, caramel coloring, and a couple of medicines as well. My husband is severely allergic to coconut, penicillin and bleu cheese and mildly allergic to tomatoes. Rosie, as far as we can tell by symptoms, is allergic to gluten, chocolate and possibly tomatoes; she also can't have peanuts until she's three just in case. We have a bag of bread in the cupboard that is strictly "Daddy's bread" and Rosie can't have any. Same goes for his wheat-starch-containing dip and frozen French Fries, and his peanut butter. I have some chocolate ice cream in the freezer which is not for Rosie and which I only eat after she's in bed. Rosie eats Nori seaweed, dry Chex and apples for snacks. We are attatchment-parenting granola hippie types and do not spank, let alone actually abuse. Sometimes parents have rules like that. It's okay. Come to think of it, your own parents also restrict what food you can have for snacks, so you really ought to know it's okay.
The doorbell rings as they're spreading peanut butter on their celery. It's Mr. Nicholls, who forgot his key. If he's so bloody abusive I don't understand why he wouldn't at least kick the door and swear.
Claudia assures him that the kids have been very well-behaved.
"That's what I like to hear," says Mr. Nicholls. Again, I can hear a lot of goofy dads, or even a fastidious but not abusive dad like Richard saying the same thing.
Claud and the boys go to clean up the kid-kit. Suddenly, Mr. Nicholls comes in holding the peanut butter jar and bellowing, wanting to know who left it out.
Claud admits that she did it.
Mr. Nicholls immediately relaxes and says "Please forgive me for hollering. I thought it was one of my dumb, slobby sons who did it."
Claudia is shocked; she's never heard a parent talk that way before.
Now, I do not deny that what Mr. N. did was awful. I just can't believe that Claud has never, never, in hall her years of babysitting EVER heard anyone lose his temper over something small and call his kids a very mild name before. It's not okay to call your kids names, but even the best parents blow a gasket occasionally. And poor Mr. Nicholls is a touch neurotic what with the neat freak business, obviously likes to feel in control, he just got locked out of his house and he's out of work, which has got to be extremely stressful. I feel like that's an issue that's deliberately mentioned but never addressed here-- sometimes even the best parents do something idiotic and wrong when they're under an enormous amount of stress. Or, that sometimes well-meaning parents aren't perfect and we can forgive each other and be a family. Or even that sometimes neurotic parents end up acting out on their children and need professional help, but they're not bad people and it's okay to love them. Or something. Something nuanced and complex enough that it sort of resembles real life-- not that abusive monsters don't exist in real life, but so do people in the middle of the spectrum. I really wish AMM could have dealt with issues like that now and then. But of course, the lesson for the book [spoiler alert] is that neat freaks who lose their tempers actually turn out to be controlling and abusive wife-and-son-beating monsters. I imagine that the same kind of impressionable children who walked away from AMM worrying that they were diabetic every time they were thirsty, or that their friends were anorexic if they didn't want to eat at Burger King, might suspect a friend's dad of abuse if he was particular about keeping the house clean or lost his temper once.
Mr. Nicholls offers Claud a ride home, which she coldly declines.
Claud invites the boys to the Saint Patrick's Day Parade planning meeting on her way out. Mr. Nicholls says it's okay-- as long as Claud promises to tell him if the children misbehave.
Okay, that actually is creepy. One more point for Ann.
Baby's crying, so that's all for now. Coming soon: shit hits the fan and Mr. Nicholls hits... everyone.