The Reluctant Heart by Janet Lambert (1950)

Penny Parrish, glamourous, successful young Broadway star, didn't want the part! Even though Josh, her husband-manager, had undertaken to produce the play with her in the leading role, still Penny preferred the country and the two babies. Let Neda, beautiful little schemer that she was, play the part; she, Penny, was happily safe in her love, her home, her children--and there she would stay.

That she was being selfish never entered her pretty head. That Josh missed the gay, enthusiastic, ambitious young actress he had married five years earlier just never occurred to Penny until it was almost too late.

What roughly awakened her to danger, what swept the play to success makes such fascinating reading that Janet Lambert's older group of readers will find THE RELUCTANT HEART especially interesting. (from the inside flap)

The Reluctant Heart opens with Penny gardening at her home in the country. Now 26 and the mother of two, she is enjoying life at home while Josh toils away in the big city in the theater. Trudy, though, is not approving of "be-kind-to-Penny day." While Mrs. and Colonel Parrish are away in Germany, it falls to Trudy to tell Penny all about herself.

"'You think I'm unhappy because I'm married to a producer and someone else is going to star in a play that he bought for me. Well, I'm not. I haven't even looked at the play. I don't want to go back to the theater because I'm happy here in the country. It's what I chose.'
'Seems to me you're protestin' a lot,' Trudy returned placidly, 'and seems I can remember you tellin' Mr. Josh that you could run this house and act with your hands tied behind you.'"
Penny contemplates her happiness, her love for Josh, and asks advice of the photographs of her family showcased in every room. We get a bit more background on the family, and I can't not mention when Parri meets the new dog, who they've planned to call Steadfast.
"'He's Dog,' Parri crumpled up on the grass with a mass of sudden wriggling love on her lap, and explained as carefully to her mother as her mother always explained to her, 'His picture is in my book. It says he's Dog. He is.'"
Adorable child logic. Penny plans a little matchmaking between cook Minna and gardener John and studiously avoids the aforementioned play. She eagerly meets Josh when he returns from the city.
"'I missed you so. You can't go in tomorrow.'
'I can't? Who says so?' Josh pulled on his brake and leaned out to kiss her deeply.
'I do. Wow!' Penny drew back and staggered, her eyes crossed. 'What a kiss!' she cried. 'Is that what you practice in the city?'
'It's what I think about but keep like loose change in my pocket.'"
Scenes like this make me wonder why no one ever bought these novels for the movies. The story of Josh and Penny would be a great series--although maybe not enough action for Hollywood. Josh and Penny discuss the play, Penny's decision to stay home, Josh's allure to actresses, and in particular Neda, who is taking over the role meant for Penny until Josh suggests:
"Then what do you say we get our money's worth out of our extra-wide box spring with oversized mattress and sheets that cost twice as much as a regular pair?"
Wink, wink! It's the fifties now! No more side-by-side twin beds?  But they continue their discussion and recapping their past history in and out of the theater. Carrol and Davy come to visit and play--and Penny worries over Davy, as his legs are still in braces from polio. She's worried that Parri will play too hard with him, but he is tougher than she thinks. And Carrol reassures her:
"'I can't breathe for him, Penny,' Carrol reminded gently. 'Not for the rest of his life. Davy has to grow up and be a man, you know.'"
Carrol and Penny go grocery shopping together, where Penny is buttonholed by a social-climbing neighbor who wants Penny to perform a monologue at her party. When Penny manages to weasel out of plans with her, the neighbor leaves her with this:
'"I'll expect some good tickets for opening night,' she leaned over to whisper coyly. 'Of course, I'll pay for them, but I trust you to see that I have eight or ten in one of the first three rows. We must give our Mr. Parrish a royal ovation.'"
This conversation, and Penny lying about how much help she is to Josh, causes a customary Penny Parrish crisis of faith. She returns home and reads the play and is anguished, thinking she no longer has the ability to act. Josh comes home and calms her down. She throws herself into helping him with the play, possibly even more than Josh wants. She even invites Neda down to the house for a working house party, which Penny wears herself out preparing for.
"By six o'clock she was ready. Parri looked like a red and white valentine in her new smocked dress, Joshu like a Schmoo in his night gown. She herself was the very charming country hostess, very informal in pink linen, and very, very tired."
However, Josh and Neda don't show up until 9:00, along with Brooks Cameron, the stage manager for the play. Neda is barely out of the car before trouble begins to rear its head. Penny sends Josh to broils steaks for dinner and links arms with Neda to welcome her.
"'Poor dear, she shouldn't have to when he's so tired.' Neda looked proprietary as she pulled back and waited. She was hooked to Penny but she waited for Josh with almost wifely concern and helped him out of his jacket with her free hand. Penny was too happy to notice."
Penny offers to take Josh's jacket, but "Neda kept it. 'I may slip it on if it gets cool,' she answered."

We have only just met Neda and my hackles are rising like crazy at this scene. Even Brooks notices Neda's attentiveness, but Penny seems to miss it altogether.
"He had had a brush or two with Neda's wiles and knew of several others, two of whom had been her husbands. The child beside him was no match for Neda Thayne--especially if she stuck to the country and her mother role."
Penny sets up for the living room rehearsal, and eagerly awaits helping Neda and Josh with the play. However, Neda refuses to act in front of Penny, and Josh backs her up, sending Penny away.
"It was like patting Parri when she was sent off to bed, and Josh hated it. For one mad moment he was tempted to hurl his script at Penny, to shout, 'Come back here! Come back her and get on the set where you belong! This whole darned business is your fault!' But he only stood and watched her cross the hall."
The weekend becomes far less fun. I love this line from Trudy: "'Miss Neda's a mighty pretty girl, but from what I've seen through the kitchen window she don't know much more about actin' than Dog does.'"

Finally the weekend is over, and Josh goes back to town.
"Penny drove Josh to the village next morning, and while they waited in front of the drug store, she remarked, 'I feel as if I'm sending a nice present to Neda--neatly wrapped in a gray suit and tied with a hand-painted scarf from Sulka's.'"
Josh runs into David on the train and they have a heart-to-heart about Penny. David asks why she's not pulling her weight in the family, especially since she was so devoted to the idea of being an actress. Josh gives him some outdated (even at the time) business about how women are meant to be wives and mothers, but David retorts with, "Yeah, but Penny didn't play with dolls much as a kid."

As rehearsals continue, Penny begins to feel more and more left out.
"Neda had become very sure of herself. She tossed in cozy little remarks like, 'Josh, you wretch, the other evening when you were up, you left a cigarette burn on my end table.' And over dinner in the room, she said, 'It's going to be hard if Josh ever stops paying my expenses. He feeds me all my meals in town and gives me board and room in the country.'
Penny didn't like the 'if Josh stops paying.' She preferred 'when.'"
Josh is increasingly worn out from the rehearsals and comes home late and exhausted. And then, he doesn't come home at all. Penny calls everywhere and not finding him, decides to head to town. Not out of anger, but because she is sure that wherever he is, he needs her. She takes the train and a couple of giggly girls on the train tell her they have a bet on whether she is Penny Parrish. But what would Penny Parrish be doing in the country, wearing a "country coat and dotted dress."

She finds Josh in the apartment and tells him that she wants to buy out Neda's contract.
"'I just found out tonight that I have to be in the play. I want to be,' she said, when he was silent.' I want to be with you, and working. The children aren't enough. I found that out, too. Nothing's enough when we aren't together, when I'm not a part of you. Can you see that?'"
Little does Penny know that just that day Neda quit, "or got fired, or whatever you want to call it. She was so lousy we couldn't go on."

Josh was worried that if he came home, Penny would want to ride to the rescue, but she made up her mind all on her own. The next morning, after little sleep and less food (and no stockings for Penny!), they head to rehearsal, where Josh tells Penny the cast will "welcome her like healing sunshine."

Josh tells the cast the news about Neda and introduces Penny.
"'She asked me just now what I intend to call her, and I'll tell you so you won't be surprised. I'll call her Penny, Miss Parrish, stupe, dope, or darling, just as I do at home. And if you hear her fling a rousing 'idiot' at me, just take it in your stride. We're family here.'"
Penny handles everything in a forthright manner, greeting the cast with humility and charm. The big news is that they are going back to the original script, which had a lesser role for the romantic lead. Jervis Travers, the romantic lead, is not very happy about that, but Penny talks to him about how disappointed he must be and tries to keep the co-billing for him. Penny even goes to talk with Neda, who is not easily placated, even when Penny offers to put in a good word with the producer of a new comedy.

Rehearsals take over their lives and they work incredibly hard, since they have only a short time until opening.
"Josh was completely happy and completely mad through it all. He did inquire for his children's health when she telephoned them, but she was sure he didn't hear what she answered."
She teases him that he doesn't even remember who she is, and she does her best to remind him.
"He rested his elbows on the table and watched her strike a tabloid pose, the tip of her show just touching the floor, knee bent, dress pulled up to show her leg. 'I wonder how I've missed seeing you around,' he said. 'You're a honey. Could I make a date with you sometime?'"
So cute. Nick and Nora, look out! They travel to Philadelphia for the opening, and Penny brings the children, which results in mostly happy chaos, although Penny hates the idea of leaving them.

She wishes: "I could be like a man and have neat pigeonholes in my heart. Business in this slot, family in the next one. I wonder if women will ever be able to do it?'
And Josh responds: 'Probably, after they've been in business as long as men have. They're still rather new at it.'"

The opening goes fine in Philadelphia and they return to New York for the official opening. Josh gets a letter that he does not share with Penny:
"'Carrol's sick,' David had written, and sent the note in by special messenger. 'Don't know exactly what is is--nervous crack-up or something. I know how busy you are, but would appreciate it if you could come out when the play gets running.'"
 Josh calls out to Gladstone and talks to David. Davy is out of his braces, and Carrol who had been so calm during the whole thing, has been having panic attacks (though he doesn't call them that). That day, she passed out completely and they had trouble reviving her.

Josh finds Penny during the acts, and although he doesn't tell her about Carrol, "he pulled the V in her robe a little nearer the center of her small curved breast and added lightly, 'Lord, but I'm glad you're so bubbly and know how to let your worries out. I'm even glad you're a little nutty.'"

The play is a great success, and they drive out to Gladstone to see Carrol. The diagnosis is that she was so strong during Davy's illness that once he recovered, she collapsed. Penny prescribes lots of activity and time with baby Lang, who Carrol feels that she's neglected.

Carrol's illness gives Penny pause and she decides to bring her children to New York with her.
"A family meant being together, she reasoned, even if is had to be in the middle of a crowded city. Cities had parks where children were taken to play, and apartment houses had elevators that were just as exciting as stairways."
A mild misunderstanding takes place, where Josh thinks that Penny is pregnant when she's only talking about the new apartment. But it all works out. Then, just as Penny is happily apartment-hunting, Terry Hayes shows up at the theater. Since Josh is out in the country, Penny invites Terry to go see an apartment with her. Her loyal dresser, Ma Harkins, is suspicious about Terry stopping by and warns Penny not to let him stir her up. Penny dismisses her concerns and heads out to the apartment.

In the cab ride, Terry mentions that he was married but doesn't say anything further. She invites him to dinner and he reflects:
"Terry Hayes loved Penny because she was so completely herself. All her thoughts poured out, her feelings; and she had often reminded him of an artist's palette that was daubed and splattered with bright colors. Each mood was a bright splotch until it was mixed with another, blended into a startling combination or toned into a shade."
Terry asks Penny if she's happy and talks more about his marriage. He says that he married his wife because she reminded him of Penny. He declares his love again, and Penny feels pity for him. When he gathers her into his arms, she says:
"'Please don't,' she said, when his hand touched her cheek. 'I'll kiss you if you want me to, but I'd rather not. It would be like a stage kiss, with my mind on other things.'"
She goes on:
'I don't know just what you expected me to do--throw myself into your arms and tell you I've been pining away for five years, or to be cheap and sly. If you want me truthful, I'm truthful. I'm sorry for you, terribly sorry, but I don't think you quite believe all this yourself. You're simply putting on an act.'
His hands grasped her wrists and pulled her up. His grip was strong and she whimpered, 'Oh, Terry, you're hurting me.' Then his lips crushed against hers.'"
The super comes back and Penny leaves for the theater, telling Terry: "We can't have dinner together, now. You aren't a Terry I can know."

Josh comes to the theater and Penny falls on him, telling him about the kiss and how they can't rent the apartment she saw because Terry was there and it's all ruined. Josh calms her down, saying:
"Things like this happen, darling, and we can't wrap ourselves in cellophane to keep life from touching us. The little events don't matter and can't hurt us as long as we know our love is too strong to be hurt."
Josh talks her down and Penny sends Terry an orchid (the private joke that they have for when they fight). Josh and Penny plan to invite him to dinner. Meanwhile, the family settles in at their new apartment, Carrol is doing better with her nerves, and West Point cadet Bobby pops in:
"'Good morning,' he said, ignoring her shriek. 'You may not remember me, but I'm Robert Parrish. I've been told I have a sister living in New York and I brought a photograph along so I could identify her.'"
Bobby's stopped by to give the good news that Colonel, Mrs. Parrish, and Tippy are coming home from Germany. Tomorrow! Trudy will be going back to her beloved "Miz Parrish" and preparations are taking place when Parri falls down in the bathtub and cuts her head. Penny takes care of Parri and still makes it to the theater on time. Talking to Josh afterwards, she's pretty proud of herself. Having juggled so much so responsibly, she asks if he thinks she's finally grown up at last, and he laughs.
"Penny loved the safe haven of his arms and rested her head against his shoulder. 'I've changed my mind,' she said, 'about this being silly way to learn a living. It's a lovely, happy way.'"
A note from Janet Lambert, from
The Reluctant Heart (Grosset & Dunlap, 1950)
And end book! As Janet Lambert says in her introduction to the book: "For My Older Girls," this is a book that handles some pretty grown-up issues of love, marriage, careers, children and how to balance them all successfully. I love that the answer is not for Penny to stay home with the children, but that the best thing for her marriage is to work side by side with her husband in the theater.

I also love that when Josh spouts off (not very convincingly) about women being made to be wives and mothers, David just as casually shoots that idea down. Even Carrol, the paragon of beauty and love and motherhood, can't keep it together forever.

I love that there is serious, realistic drama in Penny and Josh's marriage, with the appearance of the very real threat of the cunning actress Neda, and Penny's changing reaction to her. Also, Terry Hayes coming to town and confessing his love to Penny, which sends her into a tizzy, is so beautifully handled by Josh. I think it's fascinating how they look to Penny's parents as examples of a strong marriage, but that their marriage is not a carbon copy. It's strong, but in a different, more modern way, and a beautiful example for anyone to follow. In addition, Penny is such a charming, fun character and it's exciting to see her grow up and become a really competent grown-up, career woman, and wife and mother.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the little reference to "The Thin Man" series!