Monday, 6 July 2009
To state my biases up front; I love Noel Streatfeild. Ballet Shoes remains one of the most sublime children’s books I’ve ever read. When I applied to go on Mastermind (in a fit of madness – the hardest quiz on telly, no prize if you win, eternal humiliation if you fail), one of the four specialist subjects I stuck on my form was ‘the books of Noel Streatfeild’. It was a year before they called me back for a second audition, at which point I came to my senses and faked swine flu down the phone, but I still reckon that was a decent choice of subject; if you’re going to be stuck swotting up on someone’s book, they’d better be good ones.
So if even I think Gemma’s a terrible book…
That’s unfair of me. It’s not terrible by any means. Good God, it’s not Twilight. It’s just a bit of a mess compared to her other books, and in places seems to have been written by cutting bits out of them and sticking them together regardless of how well they match.
It starts off in promising Streatfeildian fashion, with the father of the central family, the Robinsons, having to give up his job as a concert musician. Suddenly there’s no money for ‘extras’ – which means bratty youngest child Lydia will have to give up her ballet lessons. Excellent! Now we’re into prime ballet story territory; plucky ambitious youngsters and their siblings secretly raising money so that they can pay for… no, wait, Lydia decides to go and have a chat with her teacher and ask if she can be taught for nothing. The teacher says yes. Mum and Dad are pleased things have worked out. “Everything’s really wrapped up nicely,” as Homer Simpson once said, “and much quicker than usual.” It’s only chapter two. Something is terribly wrong here, not least the fact that I only read this two days ago and am having to sneak looks at Wikipedia because I can’t remember the names of any characters.
It’s hard to see why Lydia’s trouble over her lessons is in the book at all, since it’s resolved instantly and has no impact on the rest of the plot – the family’s money problems are mostly over from this point on, because Mrs Robinson’s film star sister offers to fork over piles of cash if they’ll take her 11-year-old daughter Gemma off her hands while she goes to Hollywood. Gemma, a child star herself, is less than thrilled at the idea of moving in with relatives she’s never met and slumming it at the local comprehensive. Horrible, conceited cousins are another Streatfeild Staple, and it looks at first like Gemma’s going to be another Dulcie from Wintle’s Wonders/Dancing Shoes when she sneers at the house and insults oldest sister Ann to her face. It’s too good to last. Ann slaps her; Gemma admits she’s being horrible because she feels unhappy; apologies all round; Gemma’s reformed, getting on beautifully with her aunt and uncles and cousins from this point on. She’s been in the house an hour.
The whole book goes on in that vein, introducing potentially interesting plot points and then resolving them right away with the minimum amount of fuss. Gemma doesn’t want anyone at school to know she’s famous; change your name, suggests your aunt. She does. Nobody finds out her secret. Gemma’s misbehaving in school; the teacher tells her to stop it and work hard. So she does. Gemma wants to get into the drama class, but the English teacher thinks she’s too young, so Gemma decides that the headmaster will intervene on her behalf if she asks him. He does. The children’s gran takes against Gemma for stealing the limelight from her precious darlings; Gemma shrugs it off and Gran gets over it. The school pageant, taken wholesale from Party Frock, goes off without a hitch, or even a hint of a hitch, which takes the shine off Gemma’s performance a bit – when there’s never a suggestion that she’ll be anything less than brilliant, it’s hard to care when she is.
It seems likely that some of the problems of the book are because it’s the first in a series. It means that large plot points are never resolved – Gemma’s mother doesn’t reappear at the end to see her daughter’s performance, as I’d expected – and subplots like Robin’s choristry and Lydia’s dancing seem irrelevant. But there’s an awkwardness about the book too, as if Noel Streatfeild’s not completely at home writing about comps and pop groups instead of audition pieces and getting licenses from the council and cosy live-in nannies giving stern but sensible advice. I’m probably going to read the rest of the series anyway, because I bought the lot together in Oxfam and I might as well, but unlike her other books I doubt I’ll keep them. And I wish I had access to a scanner because the pink-swirly-sixties-chic cover above doesn’t have the hilarity value of mine, where a grinning blonde child plays the banjo like Deliverance of the Children of the Damned. Worth the 50p for that alone, really.