August 15, 2016

Practically Perfect by Janet Lambert (1947)

Now Penny Parrish must make a choice. Who will it be? Is she going to marry Michael Drayton? Or will it be handsome Terry Hayes? Or how about Josh MacDonald, her manager? In this book we find Penny, again in the theater, making more and more friends, deciding against Hollywood, and dividing her time busily between the family home on Governors Island, where her father is in command, and her sister-in-law Carrol's apartment in New York.

David, her brother, returns from overseas to be introduced to his new little son, young Davy. Soon after, Carrol and David invest in a farm; and Penny finds herself torn between love of the country and a passionate devotion to her work. There's Gladstone, the house that would fulfill all her dreams of a home of her own, away from the bustle and noise of New York. But then there is Penny's first love--the theater with its bright lights and the excitement of opening night. And there is Josh to guide her on the way to stardom.

As you can see, life at twenty-one for Penny is certainly filled with problems, both big and little. All in all, these questions are happily answered in the end, however, which will make things practically perfect for both Penny and her readers. (from the inside flap)

As Practically Perfect opens, Penny has been on Broadway in a play called The Robin's Nest for two years, and the family has moved to Governors Island. In other family news, Carrol and David have a toddler named Davy, and Tippy, now 12, is growing up and becoming an actual character of her own.

In addition to starring in a Broadway show, Penny has a nice selection of admirers, including Lieutenant Colonel Hayes--as flirty and charming as ever--and Captain Michael Drayton, who was wounded as he came out of a prison camp and has retired from the army. And of course, Josh MacDonald, the director with an interest in Penny's career. Tippy asks: "'But will you bring him over to dinner again sometime? He scares me but I think he's fascinating, with his black hair and so many bones in his face.'" 

In a family conference, Penny consults her parents about Josh's suggestion that she leave The Robin's Nest so she can be open to new opportunities. Meanwhile, Carrol gets a letter indicating that David is planning on leaving the army and becoming a farmer, which in an army family like the Parrishes is quite a surprise.

Josh invites Penny out to a nightclub to see and be seen by the columnists, but she gets a little confused about Josh's intentions and whether they are career-minded or romantic.
"'Listen, child.' Josh cupped his hands around her shoulders and held her while he said earnestly, 'I haven't any illusions, Penny. I don't put myself in a class with a handsome lad like Terry Hayes or the Drayton chap. I'm just a plain honest guy who likes you and thinks he can make a great star of you.'"
As the book progresses, we get some updates on Penny's friends: Penny's father had arranged for Josh to go into a combat troop overseas (as Josh wanted), Louise Frazier is a war widow, and Dick Ford was killed in the war.

In addition to her confusion about her career, Penny is feeling conflicted about love. Carrol asks her what she would choose in a man:
"'Darned if I know,' she answered. 'Someone I could respect as you respect David; someone I could trust and believe in, and follow blindly, knowing I was safe with him.' She stopped and sighed. 'Someone deep and fine,' she ended. 'So deep and fine that, like the ocean, I never could touch the bottom of his love.'"
Josh takes Penny out to Gladstone (Carrol and David's country home) for a surprise house party, with all of the old gang. Along with sledding and other fun and games, Carrol and Penny continue their heart to heart talks about Penny's love life.
"'Darling,' she asked bluntly, 'are you in love with Josh?'
'I don't know.' Penny swallowed hard and leaned her head against Carrol. 'It gums things all up,' she complained, 'when you like someone too much. When you'd rather talk with that person than any other one; or when you think other people aren't quite as wonderful, or fine, or . . .' She trailed off with a sigh."
So yeah, she's in love with Josh, but is convinced he doesn't feel the same. In her typical, charmingly dramatic fashion, she returns to the living room where the rest of the guests are gathered.
"She felt sad, beautifully sad, now that she knew she was in love with Josh, and filled with a strange exaltation. She was glad to be alone in a far corner, playing dreamy records, her hands white on the black discs. She thought her hands looked lonely, too, and clasped them together on the edge of the rich mahogany case so that they, at least, might have companionship. The music was full of dreams and she listened to it with her eyes closed and her back to Josh. It doesn't matter what happens, she thought. I'll always know he's somewhere in the world. When I'm old and famous and he's gray and tired, I'll ask him to come to tea and then I'll tell him about tonight--and how lonely I was.
She was so lost in her future denouement that she jumped and let one hand forsake its mate when Josh touched her should and said with a sly grin, 'The others have gone in to dinner, Miss Parrish. Shall we drop the curtain on the first act and have some refreshments before the second?'"
Oh, Penny! So dramatic and so very endearing. Carrol takes Josh and Penny over to see another stately home that they're thinking about buying: Round Tree Farm. Penny loves it and wants a place of her own, just like this, but Josh doesn't seem to like the idea of the house or marriage at all. "'I'm a gruff kind of cuss,' he replied, snapping shut his lighter and staring down at it. 'Cranky, moody, and selfish.'"

Penny takes it hard and returns to Carrol and David's house, only to be proposed to by Terry Hayes. She sadly declines, as she's in love with Josh. Plus, Penny wonders "how much of his love for her was love, and how much habit."

In other news, a rumor has hit the columns about a new play for Penny and she heads in to town to ask advice from a theater contact, bringing Bobby and Tippy to lunch at the swanky, star-studded Bertrand's. Josh is there, having lunch with an attractive blond actress, which, of course, breaks Penny's heart. He's trying to persuade the blond (who happens to have a very rich husband) to take on a role in the play that he has written for Penny, but no dice. So Josh goes to call on Carrol and David to be backers, and they agree. Plans for the play commence, along with a moonlit drive, after which Penny talks to Carrol:
"Carrol smoothed the folds of her sold blue dress across her knees and wondered how much she should say to Penny. It would be cruel to raise her hope if Josh were determined not to marry; and yet, never before had she seen Penny's face so strained. 'I think Josh is in love with you,' she said slowly. 'I feel sure he is. But perhaps he doesn't know it, or doesn't want to marry.'
'Well, he ought to. He ought to know he loves me and he ought to want to be married to me, Why, goodness to Betsy!'"
The rest of the book zooms along. Penny and Josh work on the play, and get a very influential producer on their side. Penny goes frantically Christmas shopping and finds a tricycle for Davy, which she has to bring to her lunch with Josh. The sentimentality of Christmas sparks a heart to heart talk, where Josh finally declares his love for Penny, though he believes that she doesn't love him back.
"'Josh,' she said, 'come outside a minute. I want to show you something.' She walked through the carpeted lobby without looking back, and went through the revolving door. She knew Josh was behind her, and when she had gone beyond the glare of the neon sign, to the shadowy entrance of a store, she turned and reached up to put both arms around his neck. 'Darling,' she said softly, 'I love you more than anything else in the world.'"
They sort out the house stuff, and want to marry immediately, but it takes three days to get a license in New York.
"'Then we'll be married on Christmas Day,' Penny relaxed with a happy sigh. 'This is what David would call quick work,' she gloated. 'Engaged on Thursday, married on Christmas, and hard at work rehearsing on the day after New Year's. Oh, my goodness, what a practically perfect life!'"
As wedding preparations ensue, Carrol lovingly teases Penny that her husband is much the handsomer.
"'He is not.' Penny bridled and her eyes flashed. 'Josh is handsome inside. He's interesting and distinguished-looking on the outside, kind of a odd and keen and intelligent, but inside he's so beautiful it dazzles me to look at him on the outside.'"
Finally, it's Christmas and the day of the wedding. Penny gets a little pre-homesick, but Major and Mrs. Parrish talk her down and Josh and Penny marry. But wait! There's more! After a honeymoon at the Waldorf, Josh takes her over to see Carrol and David, but they're at Round Tree Farm. Josh drives Penny over there and he carries her over the threshold of her new home. He bought Round Tree Farm for them, and Carrol has decorated for her exactly as Penny had dreamed when she first saw the house. As the book ends, the couple is in their new home and Josh is preparing Penny for her first day of rehearsal the next day.

I adore this book. I love the love that Penny has for making a home: "'To nail up pictures and fuss around in a kitchen ...'" and the complex romantic relationships between Penny and Josh, and her suitors, not to mention Carrol and David as he adjusts to leaving the army. I adore the maturity that we start to see in all of Penny's old gang, who we've come to know so well over the years. The wounds of the war are present and part of life, but we see the strength of character that maintains them through hard times. And Penny's conflict between her career on the stage, her love for home, and her love for Josh and her family is beautifully drawn. Plus, these characters are just so darned lovable and charming. One of the very best of Janet Lambert's novels. Sigh!

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