PhyllisMay 27, 2010
There are some basic similarities — the first-person narration, the particular kind of diary format the author uses, the deliberate obliviousness — but the two books feel fairly different.
Once cause of that, from which most of the others probably follow is that Phyllis is not a widow in her twenties, but a fifteen year old schoolgirl. She starts her diary (which is named Louise) when she and her parents move to the town of Byrdsville for the sake of her mother’s health. It’s never clear what exactly is wrong with the mother, but she’s always been an invalid, she’s going to die soon, and the nurse won’t let her husband and daughter see her because it makes her worse.
Phyllis’ house in Byrdsville is actually the Byrd Mansion, the ancestral home of the town’s first family. And that would be fine, only there are still some Byrds around, and they’ve moved out to make room for Phyllis and her parents.
There are three Byrds: Roxanne is Phyllis’ age, Douglass is in his early twenties and has been given a job by Phyllis’ father, and Lovelace Peyton, five, wants to be a doctor and goes around prescribing peculiar remedies for illnesses people don’t have. It’s supposed to be very cute, and it is, I guess.
Anyway, The Byrds are extremely poor, and Phyllis’ father is a millionaire, and when Phyllis arrives in town, she finds that everyone is busy resenting her on the Byrds’ behalf. Things get better when Phyllis and Roxanne become friends, but that doesn’t bring everyone else around all at once.
I could explain the plot, but it’s not what makes this book so charming. Well, except for the bit when someone who everyone believes has stolen something shows up and reprimands the person who it was stolen from for leaving his belongings around so carelessly. That was fun.
It’s more about the way the characters interact, I think. One of the girls in Phyllis and Roxanne’s class is sort of petty and mean sometimes, and instead of having the nicer characters one-up her all the time, Daviess has them just kind of acknowledge her pettiness as a part of her personality that they have to work around.
Another of the girls is designated as the fat, silly one. She goes through most of the book being sweet and forgetful and feeding everyone fudge. Then she overhears a secret, which she inadvertently tells to someone who tells everyone esle in town. And she’s like, “I’m sorry, but I was right there feeding them fudge the whole time, and it’s not my fault they forgot I had ears.” Moments like that excuse a lot of, “Oh, she’s the fat one. She eats a lot.”
Then there’s Phyllis herself. Molly Carter’s obliviousness read as stupidity, especially towards the end of the book. Phyllis’ reads as the naivete of a young girl who hasn’t interacted with a lot of people, and always wants to believe the best of the people she loves. It’s a really nice use of an overused trope, which made it feel kind of Jane Abbott-y — there’s that same sense of a very slightly new take on an old story. And the friendships between Phyllis and her classmates reminded me at times of the Grace Harlowe books, and that was nice too. It’s really just a lovely book.