Penelope Bailey Takes The Stage
The back cover describes this novel, dauntingly, as being “about the struggle of 19th-century women for self-determination.” Fortunately, the book itself is much less pretentious and far more enjoyable than this would suggest.
In 1889, eleven-year-old Penny, an aspiring actress, is aghast when her mother goes to Hawaii to help Penny’s father in his research, leaving Penny in the care of stuffy Aunt Phyllis, a social-climbing San Franciscan who forces Penny to spend the summer taking “comportment lessons” with her bratty female cousins. Penny is soon delighted, however, to find that her aunt’s new neighbor is a Shakespearean actor, and things look even more promising when Penny persuades her teacher to allow the class to perform scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Penny is all set to play Juliet – if she can get around her aunt, who believes that acting is a scandalous profession.
Penny, who narrates the story, is engaging and believable, as are most of the other characters in the story, though it is hard to fathom Penny’s admiration for the teenage Isabelle Grey (modeled after Isadora Duncan), who routinely spouts sentences such as, “May the heartbeat of Mother Ocean stir the blood that runs in your veins.” Even a stage-struck eleven-year-old, one suspects, would find Isabelle a little wearying. Penny wonders at times what turned Aunt Phyllis into such a killjoy, a minor mystery that unfortunately is never solved. And in a novel about the theater, it is off-putting to see a scene referred to as “The Slaying of Benvolio and Tybalt”; one hopes that this confusion of Benvolio with Mercutio was corrected at proofing. All in all, though, this is a book that should be enjoyed by young readers, whether or not they aspire to the stage.