Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary (1963)

Barbara Maclane is sixteen years old, and has barely begun to have an interest in boys. She sometimes walks home with Tootie Bodger, a trombone player in the school band, but her kindness toward him is more sympathetic than romantic, and her thirteen-year-old brother's disgusting eating habits and poor manners don't exactly do anything to improve her opinion of the opposite sex. Still, when her older sister Rosemary, who is only 18, comes home from college to announce she is marrying a 24-year-old graduate student named Greg, Barbara is enamored of the prospect of this wedding. Suddenly, she's considering not just Tootie, but another boy, Bill Cunningham, who gives her rides on his Vespa and enjoys the cookies she bakes for him. But Barbara has a lot to learn about true love, and as the wedding plans unfold, she gains important knowledge from her sister, from her mother's social club, The Amys, and from her own life experiences doing favors for a boy who doesn't appreciate them.

There is a lot in this book that contemporary readers will find fault with. The idea of an eighteen year old college freshman marrying a much older graduate student and becoming the landlady of a dingy apartment building didn't really sit well with me, and though Barbara's parents were briefly upset by it in the story, I felt like they should have been more upset and gone to greater lengths to prevent it. But I think this book - and the others in this series - are not intended to be how-to books for growing up female. They do teach some lessons about interacting with boys, but they also take a very rose-colored view of the world and indulge the fantasies that young tween and teen girls sometimes have about what it will be like to grow up, fall in love, and get married. And no, life isn't really like what we imagine at fourteen, but I don't think there's anymore harm in reading these books than in adults reading Harlequin romances. It's all in good fun.

This book is less of a romance novel than The Luckiest Girl or Jean and Johnny and seemed to focus more on family relationships - which is what Cleary wrote so brilliantly in the Ramona books. I loved Gordy, the younger brother, and thought Barbara's annoyance with him was very reminiscent of Beezus's behavior toward Ramona. I also liked Tootie, despite his ridiculous name, and thought Bill's brazen disregard for Barbara's feelings was very reminiscent of so many teenage boys who just don't know how to act around girls. And while Barbara's obsession with her sister's wedding did seem a bit strange to me, it did remind me of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers as well as That Summer by Sarah Dessen. Barbara's behavior was more like that of a twelve-year-old than a sixteen-year-old, but I think changes in the world account for that, more than any fault in Beverly Cleary's writing.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and I liked that it was almost entirely about Barbara's thoughts and feelings, and not just about impressing some boy. For Barbara, impressing the boys will come later, when this story is over, and that was perfectly fine with me. 


  1. +JMJ+

    The Beverly Cleary books I know best are those about Henry Huggins, but although they're clearly from the 50s, they don't seem dated. Neither do some of the Ramona Quimby books from the 70s and 80s, which I also remember reasonably well. They don't feel old. Retro, yes--but still relevant!

    So I'm having a bit of trouble wrapping my head around a Cleary novel that doesn't "stand the test of time" as we say . . . But then again, this one isn't one of the major classics, is it? You never hear anyone gushing over Sister of the Bride the way they gush over, for instance, Ramona the Pest. ;-)

    Thanks for these reviews, Katie! Unless I decide to do a huge Cleary readathon in the future, I'll probably never get to her First Love books, but I've enjoyed reading your thoughts. =)

  2. Suze - I like it too. It was hard to find, but I believe it's the original cover.

  3. Enbrethiliel - I've been wanting to reply to your comment all week - it really got me thinking about the Ramona books. When I was re-reading them last year, I do remember thinking they were starting to feel dated. I can't put my finger on why now, but it definitely surprised me at the time. I didn't remember them seeming "old" when I was a kid.

    Still, though, I think the experiences Beverly Cleary writes about are universal, no matter what decade you're living in. And being able to relate to a character so well makes it easier to overlook the dated references.

    Another thing I considered was the fact that novels for teens often include more pop culture references than books for younger kids. Maybe in an effort to make the books feel contemporary at the time, Cleary put more of those cultural references in, which dated those books more quickly. This is all guessing on my part, but it was interesting food for thought! Thanks for the comment.