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The Story Book Girls

January 12, 2018

I’m having an absurdly good run of book luck to start the year: first The Wings of Youth and the less-good-but-not-bad Girl in the Mirror, then Meg’s Friend, and now The Story Book Girls, by Christina Gowans Whyte. I can’t imagine it getting any better than The Story Book Girls, though. I tried to write about the book while I was reading it, but my notes are mostly things like “Elma! and Mabel!” and “I am wildly in love with the whole Leighton family.”

This is one of those books that I liked too much to be able to write about easily. I am at the best of times mostly a seething mass of emotion, and this book had my eyes welling up with (good) tears about twice a chapter. So, where to start?

There are four Leighton girls, ranging in age from seventeen to ten. Mabel is a nice girl with a knack for keeping her emotional balance in all situations. Jean is energetic and a little self-centered, and Elma is the sensitive one. Betty is the least individual, but she’s a good kid with a tart sense of humor. They’re not “the Story Books.” Those are the four daughters of Mrs. Dudgeon, a wealthy widow who lives in the neighborhood.

The Dudgeons are a few years older than the Leightons, and the Leightons have given them fancy names like Hermione and Adelaide Maud, and aspire to be like them. Even when Helen Dudgeon becomes a friend, they always refer to her among themselves as Adelaide Maud. I think the “Story Books” conceit serves mainly to show what the Leightons are like as sisters. The four of them have such a great relationship, idealized but also realistic. They irritate each other and fight for each other and have things they talk about and things they don’t, and most of all they have this solid bedrock of shared experience, and looking up the the Dudgeons is part of that.

The Story Book Girls spans about six years, and while some exciting stuff happens (illnesses, engagements, a near-drowning) it’s so spread out that the book feels uneventful in the nicest way. You get to spend time getting to know the girls and the people around them. The rest of the family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Leighton, who are as understanding as they know how to be, and don’t really want their girls to grow up, and Cuthbert, seven years older than Mabel and already a doctor. Then there are the Turbervilles — Betty’s best friend May and her mischievous and outspoken brother Lance — who are on the most informal of terms with the Leightons. They live next door to Professor Clutterbuck and his wife and daughter. Lance nicknames Elsie Clutterbuck “the Serpent,” and the younger Leighton crowd feuds with her. The Clutterbucks have a fascinating cousin named Symington, who is a famous explorer or something.

Miss Annie and Miss Grace are two spinsters who live nearby and are good friends of the girls. Miss Annie is a dubious kind of invalid who keeps to her bed largely out of choice. Miss Grace is unselfish to the point of idiocy, and shares a close friendship with Elma. Then there are the Merediths, a young man named Robin and his older sister, Sarah. They move into the neighborhood and Robin takes immediate possession of Mabel — they’re not engaged, but everyone assumes that they will be. Cousin Isobel, who arrives about five years in, rounds out the cast of characters, and slowly earns the dislike of most of the rest of them.

It’s the characters and the characterization that make the book. Whyte is so thoughtful and so smart about her girls, and I honestly can’t think of anything that rang false. And I don’t know what else to say, because I know I can’t convey how the differences between Mabel’s and Elma’s piano-playing made me love both of them, or how amazing it is when Mr. Leighton makes an effort to communicate with Isobel on her level, or the absolute perfection of Adelaide Maude introducing Mabel and Jean to a titled relative. It’s just…really good. All of it is really good.

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8 comments

  1. Long may your lucky streak endure!

    I loved this one; it even managed to end well. I think it was mostly the multidimensional characters and the interplay and their growth/adaptation? (okay, and it undoubtedly helps that most of the central characters are likeable but individual, and they also mostly end up happy by plausible means) But I don’t know; it’s hard to distill.


    • Yeah, it’s hard to explain why it’s so good, but it’s definitely about the characters and relationships. And ending well is always an impressive achievement. I couldn’t find any other books by Christina Gowan Whyte online, so I impulse-ordered a couple on abebooks.


      • Did you grab Nina’s Career? I’ve been looking at it and going “eh, less than $6 – is it worth buying it to scan and toss online?” because on the one hand, The Story Book Girls was really good; on the other hand, some authors do end up being sort of one-hit-wonders, and a case study with n=1 is not spectacularly predictive… but The Story Book Girls is *so good* and a title with “career” in it is promising…


        • Yeah, I got Nina’s Career and The Girls Next Door. I don’t think I have the necessary resources to scan it, but maybe I’ll be able to figure something out.


          • Well, if it’s any good, and if you can’t conveniently scan it, let me know and I can snag the cheap copy of Nina’s Career on abebooks if it still exists at that point. It’d be reassuring to have a “yes, this is probably worth it” stamp of approval rather than buying it to scan solely on the strength of one good book by the same author.


  2. This sounds delightful and right up my alley!


  3. I went off to Project Gutenberg and downloaded this when I first read your review, thinking it sounded like just the sort of comfortable read to save for a rainy day. It did end up being just the tonic I needed on a literally and metaphorically very rainy day indeed. Thanks for the recommendation!


  4. This sounds delightful!



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