The Unicorn Club #4: Lila’s Little Sister

The Unicorn Club 4: Lila's Little Sister
The Unicorn Club 4: Lila’s Little Sister

Title: Lila’s Little Sister

Tagline: Hiding out…

Summary: Ellie McMillan, a little girl from the daycare center where the Unicorn Club volunteers, has run away from home—to my house! It’s almost like having a little sister. The only problem is, she wants to move in permanently!

You see, Ellie’s mother just started going out with a new guy, so Ellie’s been spending a lot of time with me. I promised Ellie I wouldn’t tell any grownups that she’s at my house, but Jessica and the other Unicorns say Ellie has to go. Is there a way to keep my word and get Ellie back home where she belongs?

Initial Thoughts:

Excellent! A Lila book!

It’s no secret that I (hell, we) love Sweet Valley’s poor little rich girl. Previous Lila books in the main Twins series have been delightful, and I’m hoping that this offering is no different. I’m here for the snark, the sass, and the eventual feels when we all realise that the wealthy kid isn’t quite as wealthy as it would appear, in the areas that truly matter. She may be loaded, but there’s one thing that money just can’t buy… a dinosaur.

[Dove: Pretty much everything Raven just said. Lila is the true queen of this series, and most of us here would happily ditch the twins to read more about the adventures at Fowler Crest.]

[Wing: I want a dinosaur.]

Recap:

We start in Lila’s head. Also, we’re in Lila’s limousine. Also there? Mrs McMillan, mother of Lila’s erstwhile charge, the four-year-old SVCCC kid Ellie.

For the cheap seats, a quick recap. Lila and the other Unicorns have been volunteering with childcare at the Sweet Valley Child Care Center (or SVCCC, or even SVC3). [Wing: In an amazing bit of continuity throughout this series so far!] Lila has taken a fondness for Ellie, a sweet four-year-old kid with a down-on-her-luck single mother. In a previous book, the mother (Mrs McMillan) gained employment at Lila’s father Mr Fowler’s company. The company (Fowler Enterprises) are helping the Sweet Valley Middle School in their “Bring Your Daughter to Work” initiative. As Lila’s mother (divorced, living in France) isn’t in the picture, Lila has press-ganged Mrs McMillan into being a parental surrogate in order to get a day away from school. And lo, the action begins.

Aside:

Unless I’m forgetting something, the series thus far has never explicitly stated the nature of Mr Fowler’s “Enterprises”. In a real sense, we’re being Chandler Binged here. [Dove: I feel that it has always been something mysterious, technology related, and once described by Lila as a company that makes “pretty much everything”. So, yeah. Even I don’t know what they do.] [Wing: Feels very Ned Wakefield. They can do anything!]

Spoiler? We discover little of import here, other than Mrs McMillan has to set up some computers in an apparent IT capacity at some point. And that Mr Fowler has to take business trips to Boston or similar.

I hope that, at some stage, it’s revealed that Mr Fowler is an arms mogul or a human trafficker or a drugs kingpin. Or maybe even something altogether more sinister and evil, like a Jeff Bezos. [Wing: I love you.]

End aside.

Apparently, it seems like the whole town is on the Fowler Payroll, as the domed lobby is packed with mothers and daughters. In a classic display of narrative shoehorning, the Wakefield Twins are both present, as their interior decorating mother The Sainted Alice is contracted to redesign some of the building’s conference rooms. [Dove: Ah, breaking out the “pecan, oatmeal and peach” living room look for the high-tech offices of Fowler Enterprises. Go, Alice! Dare to do your usual theme!] [Raven: Maybe she just bought a shitload of one colour paint, and has to work through the backlog.] [Wing: To be fair, I’ve seen that color-combo in tech offices before. To my utter dismay.]

Thus, you’d expect that we’d have the usual twinny bollocks here, but it’s more subtle now we’re in the Unicorn Club. Sure, there’s the boilerplate “sun-streaked blond hair” and “fabulous blue-green eyes”, and even a slice of “Elizabeth’s the brainy type” and so on. BUT. The majority of the rehash concentrates on the new developments to the series, like Maria and Elizabeth being Unicorns now, and the club’s recent furore over wigs and lockers and double secret probations. All very pleasant and palatable, just what a new reader requires.

Lila’s recapping monologue soon turns to Ellie, who is being framed as a major player in the book ahead of us. We learn that she’s sweet, and that she’s Lila’s favourite, and that she was also put into temporary foster care before Mrs McMillan found her feet at Fowler Enterprises. [Dove: There is a spectacularly Lila moment here, where she describes Ellie thusly: “She thinks I’m really pretty, and I think she’s just as cute as I was at her age.” Wow. Even for Lila that’s a very up-yourself description. And while it is quite Lila of old, I would have thought she would have described Ellie a bit more glowingly, rather than as simply a reflection of her own looks at a younger age.]

But enough of this reminiscing. We are avid readers of this series. It’s stuff we already know. To the future!

The twins come join Lila, and Alice and Mrs McMillan take their chance to get a coffee. I’m also sure Alice has her hip flask with her. Mary (and Mama Mary) and Ellen (and Mama Ellen) soon join the girls. Bad luck, Mama Bears, you should have split with Alice when you had the chance.

The girls banter about restaurants, which is currently one of my favourite things in the whole world #OffMenuPodcast #PoppadomsOrBread. We learn that Mary’s mum, Mrs Wallace, tends to take everything literally, which I’m pretty fucking sure is a new invention and in no way reflective of the books in which she’s appeared before. [Dove: In that case, she should’ve raised the alarm much sooner when her mate said, “I’m just taking Mary for a minute. I’ll be right back.” On the other hand, it explains why she had no clue Mary was ready to run away, but kept saying, “I’m fine!” in varying tones of anguish and hoping her mother would notice.]

We also learn that Ellen’s mother can be obnoxious. Have we met Ellen’s mother before? I can’t remember, probably because I’m 47 years old. It’s crap, getting old. [Dove: YES! She’s actually the only parent in the whole of the Twins run who actually parents. She told the girls off for stealing in Buried Treasure, when they found money buried in the Ritemans’ backyard, and she actually gave Ellen some constructive advice on how to remember things, because Ellen knows she can be a bit daffy at times. Sure, she hasn’t been on screen much, but I’m kind of pissed off that the only parent who has actively parented is the demon of the bunch now. Especially as Alice and Ned are literally the worst.] [Raven: Ellen gets such a bad rap in this series.]

After scanning the room for the non-present Unicorns, talk turns to the upcoming party focus for this book, the Seventh Heaven Weekend dance. Specifically, it’s prospective outfits, and each of the Unicorns frame their responses around shopping for clothes with their mothers, and the barriers put into place because of this.

I laughed along with everybody else, but I felt a kind of tug inside. I wondered what it would be like to have a mother to shop with.

Ah. So that’s where we’re going. Lila’s mother / father issues. Gotcha.

Honestly? That’s a shame. I was hoping for some sassy bitching, maybe with the Unicorns falling out. Instead, it seems like we’re getting the other side of the Lila coin: the lonely princess routine. I mean, sure, it’s valid, but it’s not what I’m here for.

Thankfully, it’s not what Lila’s here for either. She immediately undercuts her own feelings with the following inner monologue.

Then I tossed my hair over my shoulders. It wasn’t such a big deal. When I have to buy a party dress, I just call the personal shopper at Mes Amis. She’s trained to find the right dress for you. Besides, the Seventh Heaven Weekend, which is an annual event exclusively for seventh graders, includes not only the Friday-night dance but also a field day on Saturday (where there are things like relay races and watermelon-eating contests). And on Sunday night there’s a potluck supper. My dad promised to take me to the potluck supper, and that’s more important than any party dress.

So! Some excellent Lila-style insights there, along with some valid info on the Seventh Heaven thing. And of course, there’s information on the Parental Promise – Daddy Fowler and the Potluck Supper – that will obviously be broken (and possibly re-made) by the end of the story today.

[Wing: Seventh Heaven Weekend sounds like the seventh grader students are spending the weekend hooking up, maybe kickstarted by that game seven minutes in heaven. Sweet Valley adults sure could reconsider some of their naming conventions.]

Lila changes tack, and talks about the dishes that everyone is planning to bring to the potluck supper / fuddle on Sunday. Of course, the Unicorns are unable to read the room, and talk about how their mothers will help them make shepherd’s pie or pot roast. In her inner voice, Lila informs the reader that she was planning on microwaving a frozen duck and tortilla casserole from Tilly’s.

First. where the fuck is Tilly’s? Second, I do like the way the Ghostie has Lila double down on the tastiness and prestige of the dish in fine Lila style.

Actually, I’d been planning to bring one of the duck and tortilla casseroles they sell frozen at Tilly’s. What could be better than one of Tilly’s casseroles? We always keep some of them in our freezer at home. I figured that on the big night my dad and I could just pop one into the microwave and go. I felt a little funny mentioning that now. But that was mostly because I didn’t want everyone to feel bad that they weren’t bringing anything nearly as good.

Again, mention of her business-obsessed father and the loneliness she sometimes feels. But again, she doubles down on it and sasses it out with some style. Nice. Repetitive? Nice.

The Sainted Alice and Mrs McMillan return, and Alice smooths Jessica’s loose blond hair in a loving fashion. This triggers Lila a little, which is a shame as Alice was only leaning on her daughter as a balance aid after an off-page gin binge. Mrs Riteman calls out Ellen for scruffiness, which elicits stifled giggles from the pre-teen throng. Lila, however, laughs in the Elder Ellen’s face. Mrs McMillan does her best to defuse the situation, to no avail.

Mrs. McMillan jumped to my rescue. I could tell she thought Mrs. Riteman was abnormally fussy, too. “I’m sure Lila didn’t mean anything by it,” she said.

Mrs. Riteman shook her head. “Maybe not,” she said. “I suppose it’s her upbringing. It must be awfully hard for Mr. Fowler to raise a girl like Lila without a mother.”

Shots. FIRED. [Dove: Seriously?! Mrs Riteman was the only parent with a soul, and now she’s like, “Let’s not blame the little ruffian. She doesn’t have a sainted mummy like me.” Fuck you, ghostie. (Yes, I will defend the Ritemans to the end.)]

There’s embarrassment all round, and Lila does little to calm things. In her haughty style, she brings the hammer down, hard.

“You know,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I think this mother/daughter day is a great idea, but really, how difficult can being a mother be? I mean, if it was that hard, wouldn’t moms be, like, paid or something? My dad—who, by the way, is a wonderful father—says that everybody likes to make what they do seem more important than it really is. Mothers are probably like that, too.”

How hard can it be?
How hard can it be?

[Dove: I’m just imagining Lila leaving bitchy comments on all those memes that mums post about how they’re teachers, doctors, friends… um, I can’t really remember, but basically, think of a job description and somehow a stay-at-home mum does that for their baby. (Not saying being a mum is easy, but those stupid memes really annoy me. Mostly for the grammar.) Lila probably founded STFU Parents.]

[Wing: Lila, I really want to be on your side because I love you, and I know you are but a child lashing out in pain right now, but fuck off with how easy it is to be a mother. You can’t even take care of the most basic things for yourself what with that whole staff and money thing.]

After dropping this bombshell, the throng assembled do little but smile at her, enigmatically. Kudos for the “difficult” Mrs Riteman who stares daggers at Lila in an attempt to stab her with pure glower power. Eventually, after Lila triples down, both Mrs McMillan and Alice Wakefield offer some pertinent insights into the reality of bringing up a child. Alice, in particular, is clear.

“Babies take a lot of care and patience,” she said. “But I think the most difficult part of being a mother is sticking to your guns, being consistent. A mother has to mean what she says, whether it’s something a child wants to hear or not. She has to stand by her word and keep her promises, be someone her kids can trust.” She sighed. “It’s not always easy,” she added.

Fair enough, I guess. Dove and I are child free, and judging by the way we indulge our cats’ every whim, we are more than happy with our choice. But long time readers will be acutely aware that there are mother issues dwelling deep within our recapping team, which means the majority will be Team Lila over Team Alice in this particular dogfight. [Dove: *yells* He means me! And this isn’t a fair fight. I have loathed Alice since day one, I have made sure that every single one of her parenting fails is captured on this site, and I’m still pissed off that she tried to take credit for fund-raising for the daycare centre, when we all fucking know she’d never heard of it before that meeting. So, fuck Alice for all that, never mind this bollocks she’s spouting now about standing by her word. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? “No, Jessica, you can’t have that great-looking sweater” *ten seconds later* “Here you go, Jessica.” … “Jessica, lying is bad.” *five seconds later* “But I suppose the stress of lying is punishment enough.” JUST FUCK OFF, ALICE. YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PARENT AND YOU’RE ABOUT AS CONSISTENT AS RONNIE DEFEO. (Yeah, that last one’s only going to resonate with JC, but I stand by it.)]

[Wing: Alice has at least grains of a point, but she’s a hypocrite for all the reasons Dove pointed out. We have never seen consistent parenting from her. She’s not even a bad parent in the same way twice, really.]

Before Lila has the opportunity to quadruple down, the foyer doors open and business starts for the day. Mrs McMillan ushers Lila through, to her office.

Mrs McMillan, who we learn here is called Linda (I guess we learnt that in an earlier book? Man, my memory is shot), is very proud of the firm’s computer system.

“This is the computer system I’m working on,” Mrs. McMillan said proudly. “It will link Fowler Enterprises offices from coast to coast.”

“How?” I asked. As you might have figured, I’m not exactly a computer whiz.

“By letting our computers talk to each other,” she said

Aw, how bless! The nascent internet. Give it twenty years, Fowler Enterprises will be awash with cat memes, anti-vaxx propaganda and Russian pornbots. [Dove: Except the Unicorns were emailing each other in the tail end of Twins. #Continuity.]

Linda demonstrates her job by sending an email with an attachment to the New York office. Lila is thoroughly bored. Soon it’s lunchtime, in which Lila displays a newfound desire to eat only salads. It’s odd, but in this book it seems we have a Lila that’s food conscious. This is new, but it’s definitely on brand I suppose. Also, Linda informs Lila that the staff cafeteria has an entire salad bar, as if Lila hasn’t even visited her father’s workplace before. I’m pretty sure the boss’s daughter would be on first-name terms with a few of the employees there already. [Wing: Would she? Maybe his assistant, but I wouldn’t assume Lila was on a first-name basis with any of his employees otherwise.]

The pair exit Linda’s office, at which point Linda is barrelled into by a running male employee. Heads bang, papers fly, apologies are given, eyes lock, fingers touch. The classic meet-cute. To her credit, Lila spots it immediately. Love at first sight.

“Gerard Stillman!” Mrs. McMillan said. “It’s been years!”

I guess I should have said love at second sight. Apparently, Mrs. McMillan knew this guy.

Apparently, the pair used to date years ago. Which, I suppose, is the short-form novel’s way of accelerating to the inevitable marriage later in the book. It’s not a whirlwind if most of the, ahem, blowing has occurred off screen and years previous.

Gerard has just transferred to the Sweet Valley office the previous week. Linda explains her mother / daughter day surrogacy role. Gerard invites the pair for lunch. Standard stuff.

The adults had Tuna sandwiches and sodas, while Lila has a mineral water and a salad. The talk turns to filling in the gaps in Linda’s life since their last meeting. Married, divorced, four-year-old Ellie. “Is she as pretty as you?” … “Stop it, I’m blushing.”

At the end of this twee but admittedly charming exchange, Gerard goes in for the romantic kill. He asks Linda for a dinner date that very evening. Forward, not fucking about. I like his style. [Dove: *nods approvingly*]

Linda does her best to deflect his questions. She can’t get a babysitter at short notice for tonight. She’s busy tomorrow, and the next day. Lila twigs to the reasoning immediately: Linda likely hasn’t the cash for a babysitter, as she’s just come off a long stint of unemployment and money would be tight. That’s fair. We’ve all been there, presumably, or at least we’ve been there-adjacent.

“Mrs. McMillan, I’m free tonight. I’ll baby-sit for Ellie, no charge,” I said.

“Oh, Lila!” she said. “I couldn’t impose on you like that.”

“It’s not imposing,” I said. “I’d love to see Ellie. As a matter of fact, you can ask me to baby-sit anytime.”

Good on ya, girl. Although I hope your love-at-first-sight radar is working, and that Linda wasn’t actually trying to avoid a pity date with her boorish ex, or worse. [Dove: I was nervous about this, but I had to give kudos to Lila for understanding the situation. I doubted Sweet Valley would get into the murky waters of women feeling obligated to go on a date rather than get themselves into an ugly situation by saying no thank you.]

Plans are made for seven that evening.

Once Gerard leaves, Linda clues Lila in on the history. She and Gerard were high school sweethearts, and engaged to be married at one point. Apparently, the wedding was called off as the couple had different views. Linda wanted kids and a home immediately, Gerard wanted to travel and see the world. And it seems he’d never married.

Okay, so here’s the crux of things. This book will see the Linda / Gerard relationship blossom, and Ellie will be in the middle. Gerard still might not be ready to settle down, and it’ll all kick off in the Comments.

Linda suddenly realises that she hasn’t a thing to wear for the date. Lila suggests Mandy at the Kim Thrift Store “The Attic”, and Linda is more than happy to lean on Sweet Valley’s costume designer for inspiration and guidance and low-cost couture. I swear, if the “Mandy is a costume designer” through line of this series doesn’t bear substantial fruit, I’m going to flip tables. Or the fashion equivalent of flipping tables (unravelling hems?).

Chapter Three begins that evening, back at Fowler Crest. Lila pops into her father’s study to say hi, but he’s too busy to truly engage. Instead, Lila heads downstairs to the kitchen, and Mrs Pervis.

“How did everything go?” Mrs. Pervis asked when I walked into the kitchen. She was cleaning lettuce at the sink.

“It was fun, I suppose,” I said. “Too bad Mrs. McMillan isn’t a fashion photographer or a famous actress or something. All in all, I’ve decided computers are pretty boring.”

This is a nice Lila-esque comment, I guess, so well done. The thing is – and this is spoilers of a sort – these are the hooks around which her character is displayed. This book feels like it could have been written about any of the main characters, to a point, and that they chose Lila because she canonically fit the motherless princess role, but then they did little to give her a character beyond a few pithy internalised comebacks. Welcome to my TED talk on Sweet Valley Unicorns.

Lila spills the caviar about the McMillan / Stillman date, and how she offered to babysit, and how Ellie will be dropped off at Fowler Crest that evening. Mrs Pervis complements Lila on being “awfully nice”.

I knew she was surprised, but I shrugged as if it were no big deal. It was sort of nice of me, though, wasn’t it?

Another surface nod to the Lila we love.

Lila tries to engage Mrs Pervis with some more talk, but the housekeeper is busy sauteing prawns so has no time for chats or bants. There’s a small monologue in which Lila bemoans her lack of a sounding board, and her need just to have someone there to listen. It’s a rather forthright and emotionless section, which I think is on balance the correct way to phrase it, as anything more would appear whiny and we know Lila is strong. Still, bless her. [Dove: I both agree and disagree. I would have liked more from Lila, but you’re right. She is kind of stoic about this, and protects her feelings with bitchy fabulousness, so what are the options?]

Lila disappears off to her room, after discovering her father will be leaving on business for New York that evening. Ah well, she muses, at least Ellie will keep her company.

Later that evening, Linda and Gerard drop off Ellie at Fowler Crest. Linda almost balks at the opulence on display, which is odd as I thought she’d been there before? I’ll go check the other recaps and let you know.

Welp, I checked the recap for Save the Unicorns, which features a party at Fowler Crest for the SVCCC kids, but the kids were collected by their parents from the centre rather than from the Fowler mansion. I guess the above is fine.

Linda is understandably nervous for her date, and translates that into a worry for Ellie’s safety under Lila’s supervision. She attempts to micro-manage the child care in the usual cliché’s comedy way, be reeling off a list of Do’s and Don’t’s for Lila to embrace. Lila is peeved beyond measure, but brushes it off magnanimously. She really is a seething swan, gliding serenely atop a pond of roiling emotion.

Ellie, for her part, is as cure as a button. She likes Lila. That night’s going to be fun.

Aside:

I’d like to express my appreciation that the SVCCC youngsters in this series are not afflicted with horrendous baby-speak. It they were, I would have checked out of this series HARD. [Dove: In that case, I would like you all to appreciate the work bat and I did on recapping My Little Pony n’ Friends, which has babytalk all the way through.] [Raven: *shudders*]

That is all.

End aside.

Mr Fowler puts in a brief cameo, meeting Ellie and generally being nice, before he departs in the Fowler Limo for his business trip. Having just re-read Dove’s recap of Save the Unicorns, Mr Fowler has met Ellie before. He fawned over her, and declared she looked just like Lila did at that age. So, bad continuity between the books in this subseries, never mind this and the wider Sweet Valley Canon. [Wing: And I was so pleased with some of the continuity at the beginning of this very book.]

Although, I guess the line “This must be the famous Ellie McMillan” could be a gentle and light-hearted greeting for someone you’ve met before. Someone called Ellie McMillan, or course. Not someone called Frank Ibbetson.

The evening proves to be pleasant. Ellie and Lila enjoy watching cartoons on the VCR, and eating hot popcorn made by Mrs Pervis. A makeover is also mooted. It’s all very wholesome. There’s a small reference to one of the cartoons centring on a wicked stepmother that gives the four-year-old Ellie the Pause of Foreshadowing, but when the star-crossed lovers that are McMillan and Stillman return to collect the youngster, it’s all sweetness and light.

I walked Mrs. McMillan to the door, then watched until Mr. Stillman’s car disappeared down the driveway, just as I had watched Dad’s limousine disappear. Then I went back inside and up the stairs to my room.

Almost all sweetness and light. Poor, lonely Lila.

The chapter ends with Lila, alone in her room, ruminating on motherhood. After a successful night with a four-year-old, she is convinced that Mrs Riteman is a creep and an idiot. Motherhood is a piece of piss.

She vows to be just like Alice Wakefield. And by that, she doesn’t mean a gin-sopping sanctimonious lazybones. [Dove: Since she’s a trust fund princess, it’s more likely to be champagne than gin.]

I’ll never break my promises, I vowed. My children will know what to expect. They will be polite and well behaved, because we’ll understand each other. They’ll never whine or talk back or make fun of me behind my back the way Ellen makes fun of Mrs. Riteman. We’ll be friends. We’ll play together and spend a lot of time going to the zoo and museums and the carousel in the park. Most important, I’ll be there whenever they need me. I closed my eyes and began to drift off. Someday, I’m going to be a perfect mother.

After all, I thought before I finally fell asleep, how hard can it be?

Heh. The actual words.

How hard can it be?
How hard can it be?

Good luck, Lila. I fear these works will come back and bite you on the ass. [Dove: Lila strikes me as the kind of person who would be child-free. Or, I suppose she could import them.] [Wing: Oh, Lila, I thought you of everyone could see through Alice’s fake perfection.]

Chapter Four cuts to Tuesday, and lunchtime at the Unicorner. Our friends are writing the compulsory essay that must accompany the mother / daughter day excursion. Lila is feeling touchy about the subject. That’s understandable. It’s just another crappy non-inclusive project designed by the shitters in charge of Sweet Valley Middle School. [Dove: I wonder how Melissa McCormick‘s doing on this project? Did she sit in a cemetery for the mother/daughter workday? Did she just bring in some dirt from her mother’s plot and write an essay about that? #JusticeForMelissa]

Everyone waxes lyrical about their amazing mothers. They explain away their flaws and largely complete. Evie Kim uses her grandmother as her “mother” figure. Oddly, Mary, the Unicorn with the most skin in this mother game, simply offers “my mum can’t really cook.” Maybe she’s blanking out the more traumatic parts of her backstory.

Of course, this sets Lila thinking, again. In a repetitive way rather than an interesting one.

I smiled, but I felt a little funny. What made mothers so special? I had my dad and Mrs. Pervis. What was so great about having a mom, as long as you had someone to take care of you?

Tiring of the conversation, Lila makes her excuses and leaves. As she goes, her Unipals keep wittering on about the cool things they do with their mothers.

In the bathroom, Lila considers her own position. It’s not that she doesn’t have a mother. She does have a mother. It’s just that her mother isn’t present in her life. He father, she feels, does all the things that mothers can do. When he’s around. But he’s hardly around. But that’s okay, right?

Poor Lila. I can’t see her getting through this without a meltdown.

Action skips gaily to the SVCCC that afternoon after school. Our Unifriends are volunteering, and the kids are being LITTLE FUCKING HELLIONS.

First, Alison and Sandy have cornered Yuky in an attempt to steal her ragdoll. Yuky is doing okay; she has Alison by the pigtails and is slamming her doll repeatedly into Sandy’s face. Good job it’s made of rags and not cement. Evie does her best to calm things.

Talking of cement, Arthur and Oliver are fighting over ownership of a toy cement mixer. We have Jessica attempting to break them up. That’s not like the Jessica of old… she’d be stoking the fire of animosity with her toasting fork and S’mores.

Ellie, on the other hand, is charm personified. She rushes to Lila, with a great smile and a genuine love. Lila reciprocates, but milks it for all its worth before the eyes of her onlooking chums. As the other Unicorns do their level best to calm the group, Ellie and Lila are static in the quiet eye of the hurricane.

Evie offers the opinion that the children are acting “crazy” today. While not the best choice of words, it’s hard to refute her sentiment. Of course, Lila, with her one day of babysitting and an almost supernaturally serene four-year-old, has decided that her way is the correct way, and that she’s prime mothering material, and that the others can learn a thing or two from her even-handed and measured approach.

Naturally, the other Unicorns think she can get in the fucking sea.

Before things get too ugly, the centre’s owner Mrs Willard enters and heaps praise on all sides. It’s a transparent ruse to get them to volunteer / attend the centre’s picnic that Saturday. It’s a potluck / fuddle picnic, which seems strange. You wait 130+ books for a potluck lunch, and then two come along at once.

After the volunteer stint, the Unicorns head home. On the journey, they chat shit about the upcoming Seventh Heaven Weekend (in two weeks’ time). Lila is most looking forward to the potluck / fuddle supper on the final day, Sunday, as that’s the day her dad has promised to be present. [Wing: TIL the word fuddle when paired with food.]

Jessica, of course, is more interested in the dance on the Friday evening, largely because of the possibility of Cute Boys. Giddy from the excitement, she comes up with a nice idea: she invites her best friend Lila to spend the weekend at the Wakefield Compound.

Lila likes the idea. The Wakefield household is bustling fun, and with her father away on business, and Mrs Pervis hoping to visit her daughter in Sunshine Falls that weekend, she agrees with grace. [Dove: Sunshine Falls. And Sweet Valley. Urgh. Big Mesa got off light when it came to names.] [Raven: Can’t stop picturing Radiator Springs.]

Jessica says she’ll tell her mother to make something special for dinner that Friday night. Lila says that she shouldn’t go to any trouble, and through her inner monologue we learn that Lila often wishes her friends wouldn’t make such an effort as she rarely gets to ear normal family food. Jessica, of course, is insistent.

“Oh, my mom will love making a fancy dinner,” Jessica said. “She says you’re the only one who appreciates gourmet cooking. Besides, she gets a kick out of doing special things like that.”

For a moment, I felt jealous. I wondered what it would be like to have someone around who liked to do special things. When we wanted a special dinner, we hired a caterer. But I put it out of my mind. No one put together a better dinner party than Mrs. Pervis. If anything, my friends should feel jealous of me.

Again, some nice insight into Lila’s life and character, and a fine embracing of her own privilege to avoid appearing ungrateful. Also, a little bitchy. Top Lila.

[Wing: Pretty sure you’d still hire a caterer for special dinners even if your mother was still around, Lila.]

Of course, the chapter ends with a little more emotion…

That night I ate dinner by myself. Mrs. Pervis had to go out for a few hours to visit a sick friend. She’d made sole amandine, one of my favorites, but I hardly tasted it. Sitting in the big dining room, listening to the tick of the grandfather clock, I couldn’t help thinking that as much as I loved sole amandine, tonight I would have preferred meat loaf.

Our poor girl.

Aside:

I am feeling for Lila here, but I have to say, can we get on with the bloody book please?

It’s a little repetitive at this stage, a litany of inner monologues on the nature of motherhood and loneliness.

Lila’s great, but nothing has actually happened, other than the Linda / Gerard meet-cute. And if we’re honest, none of us are here for that shit.

Come on now, Ghostie. Get a fucking wriggle on.

End aside.

Right. What the fuck is sole amandine? Sole, as in the fish?

*googles*

Yup. It’s sole (or other delicate white fish fillet) in a lightly spiced and zested almond and butter crumble. Looks like a lovely and simple recipe, and I might try it out.

Chapter Five. It’s Saturday! It’s the Potluck Picnic!

To be honest, the picnic sounds great. There’s Korean Barbecue, hamburgers, hotdogs, fruits, punch, sodas and more. The kids have a lot of cool toys to play with, including blocks, trucks, dolls and balls, and the toddlers have swings and bubbles to blow.

Both Gerard and Linda are picnicking together, which is a clear sign that things are proceeding apace in their relationship. In a tender scene that both demonstrates the couple’s cuteness factor and underscores Gerard’s uselessness with kids, Gerard is tasked with tying a wriggling Arthur’s shoelace. He is, of course, completely inept at it. Eventually, Linda steps in to help, and succeeds first try.

Mr. Stillman shrugged good-naturedly. “So that’s how you do it,” he said.

Mrs. McMillan tousled his hair. “You’ll learn,” she said.

Well, if that’s not a commitment to a long-term relationship, I don’t know what is.

It is, however, much more than that. Because Ellie has witnessed the scene, and, feeling left out, tries to muscle in. She runs to her mother and claims her shoe is untied too. Which it isn’t. Gerard then makes an excuse to leave, to fetch S-O-D-A-S for himself and Linda. Linda then tells her daughter to go play elsewhere, as “Gerard and (her) have some things (they) need to talk about.”

Ellie pouts, but is brought around by a placatory Lila who gives her a push on the swings.

While pushing Ellie on the swings, alongside Ellen doing the same for Oliver, Lila spills the beans on Linda and Gerard’s history. Soon the other Unicorns join and listen in, with an eavesdropping Ellie swinging nearby.

In earshot of the poor four-year-old, we have the following exchange.

“Mrs. McMillan and Mr. Stillman were engaged a while ago,” I whispered. I glanced at Ellie, who was contentedly swinging back and forth. “They broke it off because Mr. Stillman didn’t want children.”

The other Unicorns glanced uncomfortably at Ellie.

“But I guess he likes them now,” I added hurriedly.

“Even if he doesn’t know how to take care of them,” Elizabeth observed wryly.

I looked at the picnic table where Mr. Stillman was struggling to feed one of the toddlers a spoonful of baby food. Most of the food was on Mr. Stillman’s shirt.

We all started laughing.

The above, I’d suggest, is the catalyst of the story to come. By design, of course. Nice work, Ghostie. But either way, if Lila had been a tad more discrete here, none of the following mess would have happened. [Dove: Bless her idiotic mouth. Although she’s still parenting better than Ned or Alice. And she’s twelve.]

Loose lips sink ships.

The change is almost immediate. In the following scene, we see Ellie being far less “Ellie” and far more “Oliver”. She and Yuky are in a pitched screaming battle for Yuky’s ragdoll, and you can be sure that it wasn’t Yuky who first disputed ownership.

As Linda and Gerard whisper sweet nothings to each other, oblivious to Ellie’s heel turn, Lila does her best to placate the glowering child.

Aside:

I can probably end this recap here, with the preceding sentence. Form here, the entire BOOK is Lila doing her best to placate a glowering child.

End aside.

Lila even points out Ellie’s mood swing to a distracted Linda, who brushes her off to concentrate on Gerard and the fluttering in her abdomen.

Lila realises that she has to take care of things herself.

After a few aborted attempts at talking the tantrum-fuelled Ellie off the ledge, Lila eventually strikes gold by throwing a faux tantrum herself. She and Evie perform a scene in which they fight over Evie’s soda can, which culminates in Lila lying on her back, thrashing her limbs and pounding the grass. Ellie loves it, and forgets her own worries with a giggled refrain. Nice work, Lila.

When they return to the McMillan / Stillman throng, Lila is asked if she could baby-sit Ellie the following evening.

It’s the following evening immediately. Fowler Crest is primed and ready for Ellie’s arrival. Picture books? Check. Popcorn maker? Check. But when Ellie arrives with her mother, she’s in a peculiar mood. Apparently, she’s been “like this” all day. Gerard beeps his horn from the roadside and calls Linda, claiming they’ll be late for the show if she doesn’t hurry. Well, there’s you impetus for Ellie’s reticence, you clueless asshats. I am no fan of Gerard here. [Dove: Yep, during this scene, I just kept thinking of Modern Family, where Andy told Hayley that she deserved someone who only honks to support the troops!] [Raven: ded.]

After umming and ahhing, Linda eventually leaves Ellie to Lila’s mercy. As soon as the door is shut, Ellie sticks her tongue out and runs away. Cue a frantic passage where Lila tries to calm down an unhelpful child with promises of her favourite cartoons. Ellie declaims that she hates everything, and to Lila’s credit she manages to keep, a calm head, eventually bringing things back to normality by channelling Alice Wakefield of all people. She decides that talking to Ellie is the best way to calm things.

I cleared my throat. “Ellie,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something about me that you might not know. About me and my daddy.” Ellie didn’t say anything, but her eyes shifted toward me. “My daddy is a businessman,” I said. “And because of his business, he has to leave me alone a lot. I hate it when he does that. It makes me feel like he doesn’t love me.”

The pout faded from Ellie’s face, and she took a step toward me. “Your daddy doesn’t love you?”

“Come here,” I said, patting the couch beside me.

Ellie ran over to me.

In a lovely scene, Lila goes on to say that Mr Fowler loves her, just as Ellie’s mother loves Ellie, but that sometimes adults need time to speak to other adults, and it doesn’t mean that Ellie is not loved when her mother goes out to shows with the impatient Mr Stillman.

Ellie listens intently, and says that she could be her mum’s friend.

I smiled and squeezed her. “You’re Mommy’s little girl,” I said. “That’s a very special person to be.”

“It is?” she asked uncertainly.

I nodded. “It sure is,” I said. “Now how about that popcorn?”

The girls make popcorn, but Ellie is still sad. She asks Lila about her father. Lila tells her he’s away on business, just like last week.

“He loves you, but he still goes away?” she asked.

I forced a smile. “Yes,” I said.

Ellie thought about that a minute. “Oh,” she said at last.

It’s obvious that this is serious, and that Ellie is hurting.

Lila, it’s about this time you should mention something to Mrs McMillan. Like, when she gets home from the date. Her daughter is obviously going through some sort of crisis, and her mother needs to know.

We now slam-skip to the following Saturday. We learn that the Unicorns hadn’t spent much time together in the previous week, and that Daddy Fowler was still away on business. The highlights of lonely Lila’s week had been two short baby-sitting sessions with Ellie. Nothing long, a merte hour or so each time as Linda worked late, but enough to break the monotony. And of course, Ellie had been her usual self each time.

Today, it’s a trip to Casey’s Place for some ice cream with her friends.

While there, talk centres on more family chat, particularly the role of siblings. We hear that all Steven can talk about is basketball, and that Mandy’s brother has been a terror and her sister has been studying for multiple tests. We also hear that Ellen has been forced to join the French Club, and that Maria’s sister Nina has been annoying her by playing doo-wop music.

I shrugged nonchalantly. “I guess I am lucky,” I said. But I wondered for a moment what it would be like to have sisters and brothers running around, playing records and talking about basketball. I quickly decided it would be awful. Who wanted to live in a zoo? And my house isn’t that quiet—not all the time, anyway.

Oh look, another Lila monologue in which she says one thing and then undercuts it as not to appear ungrateful. Come on now, Ghostie. You’ve other tools in your box, surely? Not every problem requires a hammer.

How hard can it be?
How hard can it be?

The waitress arrives with their order. I like a bit of food porn, so let’s have at it #OffMenuPodcast.

  • Jessica: A strawberry sundae. A classic. No complaints here.
  • Elizabeth: A pineapple sundae. I mean, what the fuck? I like pineapple, but it’s not really a sundae fruit. What a bizarre choice. [Dove: Even I can’t defend this.] [Wing: I don’t like sundaes, but pineapple on sundaes is pretty common here.]
  • Evie: A hot fudge sundae with peppermint ice cream. Loving the hot fudge, unsure about the mix with peppermint ice cream. I think there’d be too much of a clash, but I’m prepared to be proven wrong. [Dove: One or the other, Evie, not both.] [Wing: Chocolate and peppermint go together amazingly! I’m not a huge fan of peppermint ice cream itself (I don’t tend to like single-flavour ice cream, I also don’t like plain vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, etc.), but peppermint + chocolate = A++.]
  • Mary and Ellen: A root beer float. Get out of the fucking diner, you perverts. [Wing: Disgusting. I hate root beer.]
  • Mandy: A marshmallow sundae. Sorry Mandy, that’s a bad choice. The marshmallow would take up too much sundae real estate.
  • Maria: A dusty sundae. I’ve no clue what that is. *googles* So, a sundae sprinkled with something sweet? Meh. I blame the lacklustre description here. [Wing: Sprinkled with malt powder, as far as I’ve found (I’ve never heard of a dusty sundae before). I don’t find that it really adds much sweetness but it does change the flavour.]
  • Lila: A double scoop of praline pecan ice cream. Gotta say, sounds delicious. My favourite choice, hands down. Add a third scoop of pistachio, and we’re golden. [Wing: Again, gross. Though Ostrich would love it.]

As she eats her classy desert, Lila has another monologue about her lonely life. Yeah, we get it now. Buy a cat and shut the fuck up.

Another smash-cut to Tuesday, and school. It’s also the day Lila’s father gets back from his business trip. Of course, when Lila dashes to greet him, the workhorse is in his study. He ushers her out with a cursory greeting, and says he’ll be with her “in a minute” before abandoning her outside her study door. She gives up waiting after more than a few minutes, and retreats to her room.

Sorry there, Mr Fowler, but that’s a prime dick move.

The dick moves continue over dinner that night. Much to the surprise of FUCKING NO ONE, once Lila has told him about her week and her excitement for the upcoming Seventh Heaven Weekend supper, which he’s promised to attend, he throws her the following shitnugget.

Dad cut into his veal. “Actually, Lila,” he said, “that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

I could tell from the tone of his voice that it was bad news.

“I’m afraid there’s some very important business I have to take care of in Boston,” he said. “I won’t be able to make it.”

I swallowed the piece of veal. Suddenly, it tasted like sawdust. “Oh,” I said.

Lila, of course, takes it on the chin like the trooper she is. She swallows a silent scream, before saying that all is fine, and that she knows he’d be there if he could.

He smiled. “Of course I would,” he said. “You’re my daughter, Lila. That’s a very special person to be.”

I forced a smile. It was the same thing I had told Ellie. Only, I realized now that it didn’t make you feel any better to know that you were special if the person who felt that way about you was never around.

Aside:

I am enjoying this book, I think. It feels a bit Route One, and it’s telling a story that does make me roll my eyes a touch, but it’s deft in places and it’s worthy.

But it does feel a bit repetitive, and if I’m honest I was hoping for something a bit more sparkly and a little less dreary. I like my Lila to be fabulous, and there’s only hints of that here. She’s more of a sad-sack than a superstar in this story. [Dove: I think Poor Lila! raised expectations for me. I was expecting her to be sassy and magnificent, but she has no-one to bounce off. Someone fetch Melissa, maybe we can still save this book?]

Ah well. Onwards, I suppose.

End aside.

Next day, Wednesday, volunteering at the SVCCC. As usual, things are fraught.

In a telling scene, Lila is supervising a contented Ellie, before she’s called to the kitchen to help make sandwiches for the collected throng. As she makes to go, it’s clear that Ellie is having none of it. She clings to Lila’s leg and won’t let her leave. Thankfully, she’s soon mollified by the offer of her helping Lila prepare the food.

This goes well, until a post-swing Arthur approaches and asks for a sandwich. Ellie then becomes enraged, and shoves him, shouting “Go away!”. Lila decides to ignore the outburst, which is bizarre but I’ll roll with it.

Next, Sandy presents Lila with a finger painting. Lila coos over the kid’s talent, before hanging it up to dry on the clothesline in the room next to the kitchen. When she returns, she finds Ellie has “finger painted” her own artwork on the fridge, with stripes of grape jelly from a broken jar. Ellen is shouting at Ellie for being naughty (go Ellen!), but Lila takes over and calmly explains to Ellie what she did wrong.

I gave her a big hug. So she was acting a little rambunctious lately. Who could blame her? She’d been through a lot in her life, what with her father and mother’s divorce and being put in foster care for a while. And Mrs. McMillan had been going out a lot lately. It was understandable that Ellie might be acting a little clingy and insecure.

I smiled to myself. I had to admit, I was handling Ellie’s outbursts with a lot of patience and maturity. I guess the nurturing part of my nature was coming out.

Ellie, now calm, returns to her usual placid self. Lila, full of self-praise for her frankly mixed-success actions, thinks no more about it. We move on.

Lila. LILA. Please say something to Linda when she comes and collects her daughter. The poor kid is suffering, and acting out, and it’s not your place to try and “solve” things. All you’re doing is slapping a plaster on a gaping wound. You need her mother to address the cause, and to stop firefighting the symptoms yourself. [Dove: Also, she’s kind of rewarding Ellie for acting out. If the other kids pulled these stunts, they’d be told off, but Ellie’s being cuddled and coddled in response.]

BAM! It’s Friday night, the first of the Seventh Heaven weekend. Mrs Pervis is packing, about to head off to see her daughter. Lila is packing too, for her weekend at the Wakefield Compound.

Again, there’s more internal monologuing about poor Lila’s loneliness, and the fact that her father would apparently never know her classmates before high school other than the ones he already knew.

Is that really an issue? Mr Fowler knows all the Unicorns, old and new. He even took a gaggle of them to Hawaii. And so what if he doesn’t know, I dunno, Caroline Pearce? Who cares? My mum and dad didn’t know any of my classmates, other than my friends, and I don’t think that’s a bad or weird thing. [Dove: My mum still refers to Tiny (our IRL BFF) as “Mell”. I haven’t seen Mell since 2002, but sure, let’s go with that.]

Anyway, Mrs Pervis leaves after reassuring herself that Lila will be fine by herself. Jessica calls and tells Lila that the Wakefields are running a little late. Wakefields? More like Snoozefields, am I right? *high five, party cannon*

As Lila imagines life at the Wakefield Compound, she retreats into her shell and begins to wallow. We get a more visceral pity party than we’ve seen before now, with Lila vocalising her deepest fears and breaking down into a blubbering mess. She does her best to reign it all in, but bless her, he life is having a toll on her mental health.

The doorbell chimes. It’s the Wakefields, earlier than anticipated! Or is it…?

Nope. It’s not. It’s the four-year-old Ellie, all by herself.

I mean, what the actual?

Ellie immediately ‘fesses up. She’s run away from home. That harlotting gadabout Mrs McMillan has left her daughter in the hands of an inept babysitter, so she can go away on business. What a headstrong strumpet. What will she want next… abortions? Fucking pockets?! [Dove: Public Service Announcement re Pockets: Raven’s PJs have pockets. Good ones. My jeans do not. WHY?!] [Raven: I need generous storage for my Pocket Meats.]

Lila does the journey maths, and deduces that the trip Ellie took had only one major road to cross, and that was a pretty quiet one. We then learn that, before she went away, Mrs McMillan had entertained Mr Stillman, where they apparently discussed going away, together, and without Ellie.

“Maybe they were talking about your mommy’s business trip,” I suggested.

Ellie shook her head vehemently. “No,” she said. “They were talking about going away together. Mr. Stillman was talking about going lots of places. He said just him and Mommy.” Fat tears dropped onto her lap. “Mommy said she had to start looking for someone to leave me with.”

“Did you ask your mommy where she and Mr. Stillman were going?” I asked Ellie.

She shook her head. “Then a baby-sitter came and put me to bed. I sneaked out and came here. She… the baby-sitter was getting a snack in the kitchen.”

Gotta admit, this does sound bad. But I’m sure a level-headed kid like Lila Fowler won’t immediately jump to the same conclusions, right? She’ll call Mrs McMillan and get things straightened out… surely?

I hugged her. “It’s OK,” I said. “We’ll straighten this out. I’m sure your mommy’s not going to leave you.”

But even as I told her that, I began to have my doubts. I couldn’t help remembering my talk with Mrs. McMillan the day we ran into Mr. Stillman at Fowler Enterprises. Mrs. McMillan said that the reason she and Mr. Stillman hadn’t gotten married was that he didn’t want children and he wanted to travel. And then there was the way she’d treated Ellie at the picnic. Mrs. McMillan had practically ignored Ellie the whole day. It was as if she and Mr. Stillman didn’t want Ellie around. Could that possibly be true?

Maybe Mrs. McMillan was planning to run off with Mr. Stillman and leave Ellie behind. Maybe she didn’t want to miss a second chance to be with Mr. Stillman, and since Mr. Stillman didn’t want children, she was going to give Ellie up. She had put Ellie into foster care once before. What was stopping her from doing it again?

Oh, come the fuck on now, Lila. Drop the Idiot Ball and back away slowly. You’ve never had an interaction with Mrs McMillan that wasn’t lovely, open and on the level. She’s never given you ONE CLUE that she’s the kind of mother that would abandon her child at the twitch of a handsome stranger’s cock. Okay, I know you have Mommy and Daddy Issues aplenty, but you’re still a girl that would do the right thing no matter what. [Dove: Also, Linda left him before she even had a child because he didn’t want one. Why would she drop the one she now has and clearly loves? CALL HER!]

Ellie tearfully declares that she wants to stay in Lila’s room with her. She also insists that she wants to live with Lila forever. I don’t blame her. Fowler Crest is huge, and daily doses of sole amandine sounds incredible. Lila tries to placate her as she picks up the phone to dial the McMillan household (and the presumably frantic babysitter). But Ellie catches her in a promise that she simply can’t keep…

“And you promise not to tell anyone where I am?” Ellie asked.

I picked up the phone beside the couch. “Sure, Ellie,” I said, not really paying attention to what she said as I started to dial Mrs. McMillan’s number.

“Promise,” Ellie repeated.

“Yes, I promise.” Then it registered. “Well… I mean… I at least have to tell the baby-sitter you’re here,” I said.

Ellie’s face scrunched up. “But you promised!”

“I know, Ellie,” I said. “But she’ll be worried about you.”

“I don’t care!” Ellie said. “You promised, you promised!”

Lila is now screwed. Taking her blueprint from Alice fucking Wakefield has now metaphorically chewed off her leg. “Mothers must be trustworthy” … “mothers must keep their promises to their children”, and so on. [Dove: Literal proof that the Wakefields are the worst role models in all of Sweet Valley.]

Lila decides that this promise is now the most important thing to consider in this terrifying debacle. Don’t worry about the fucking consequences, be they immediate or long range. She apparently can’t tell anyone about Ellie’s presence, first and fucking foremost.

She calls the Wakefields, and makes up some shit about being ill to extricate herself from her upcoming sleepover. She tells Jessica that her “headache” will mean she misses the dance that night, but that she can hopefully catch up with them tomorrow.

For a cool second, she actually contemplates leaving Ellie alone for a few hours, so she can go to the dance, before she rightly discards that idea. Leaving a four-year-old unsupervised could have seen this book have a very bleak ending indeed.

In order to keep Ellie entertained, the pair make popcorn together. It’s a nice scene, and funny, as Lila over-eggs the kernels and puts triple the recommended amount in the pan. This leads to popcorn popping all over the goddamn show, which the pair clean up with good grace.

Next, Ellie asks if she can see Lila’s toys, and we’re treated to a glimpse of the shelves and shelves of dolls that adorn Lila’s bedroom walls. Is that a thing? We’ve been in Lila’s room before, right? And there wasn’t a metric fuckton of dolls, correct?

Of course, Ellie asks to play with Lila’s favourite and most personal doll, Sarah. After a feeble attempt to fob her off with a variety of others, Lila gives in. And as she’s handing the doll over to the grasping Ellie, she hears something rattle against the window. It’s Jessica, who’s thrown a stone to catch Lila’s attention!

“What are you doing here?” I asked, leaning out the window.

“I left the dance, because I felt bad about you getting sick and missing it,” she said. “Everybody did.”

Bless our little sociopath! She is worried about her friend. Lovely touch. [Dove: Two things here: 1) As someone who loves her vintage childhood toy collection, OMG, the anxiety I got from letting a kid play with the favourite toy… *shudders* Lila is far stronger than I. And 2) bless Jessica for being a good friend. So long to the one who deliberately embarassed Lila for not having a mother.]

Lila does her best to convince the driveway-stationed Jessica that the Headache Is Real, but Ellie chooses indiscretion and begins jumping on Lila’s bed. She falls, of course, and begins to cry, loudly. Jessica immediately recognises Ellie’s voice, putting two and two together to come up with a fine Four. She demands more information, and Lila can do nothing but let her in.

The explanations happen in the bare gap between Chapter Eight and Chapter Nine, as Jess is fully versed in the sitch as we kick off the latter. She quizzes Lila on the apparently Unbreakable Vow that means that Lila can’t break her promise to the four-year-old Ellie.

Jessica thinks it’s ludicrous, and spots the obvious loophole. Lila can’t tell anyone about Ellie’s whereabouts, but Jessica can.

Welp, apparently, Jessica can’t.

If Jessica tells, Ellie would surely conclude that Lila had broken Ellie’s trust and told her friend, who then gave her away. No it’s a nix on Jessica spilling the beans.

“Let me at least call the baby-sitter,” Jessica whispered in my ear. “You can’t have Ellie stay here.”

I shook my head. “I can’t break my promise.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “Li-la,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Gotta say, if Jessica Wakefield thinks your plan is ridiculous, then your life has gone terribly wrong.

Lila tells Jessica that no, she’s not being ridiculous, if you’re living your like to the tenets of the Sainted Alice Wakefield. [Wing: Not even Alice Wakefield would keep a promise like this, dear lord, Lila.] She declares that if she tells anyone of Ellie’s whereabouts, Ellie will never trust her again. She just has to ride the storm until Ellie decides that she wants to go home of her own accord.

Jessica is of one mind: Fuck That Shit. She heads back to the dance, after Pinky Swearing not to tell anyone that Ellie is with Lila. Attagirl, Jess. Go have fun.

As soon as Jessica leaves, Ellie becomes rambunctious. She’s not going home, she hates Lila’s doll, and she wants some motherfucking Ice Cream. Lila tries to calm her with story-time, but an hour of that shit doesn’t so much as dent Ellie’s resolve. It’s now after ten, way past Ellie’s bedtime, and she’s as wide awake and feisty as ever.

Lila offers to make her a Peanut Butter sandwich, the cartoon staple. Ellie accepts, but screams that she needs to accompany Lila to the kitchen while she does this. I get that. Poor mite is afraid to be left alone. She has abandonment issues.

In the kitchen, Lila makes the cardinal error of making the Peanut Butter sandwich out of Crunchy Peanut Butter. Cue Ellie screaming that she doesn’t like lumps. Eventually, Lila locates some smooth peanut butter (behind a can of lobster meat, ha!), and makes a smooth sandwich. But this time, it’s too skinny. Modifications made it too fat. Eventually, like the porridge in Goldilocks, it is just right.

The milk she’s poured isn’t right, of course. It’s plain, while Ellie wants chocolate. She wants chocolate milk so bad, she screams for it.

Eventually, Lila sets a bargain. Chocolate milk for a promise that Ellie will go to be straight after. Ellie acquiesces. And just before Lila leaves her to sleep, Ellie reiterates the situation for all the readers who’ve not been fully attentive.

“Lila?” she called, just before I closed the door.

“Yes?”

“Remember you promised not to tell anybody I was here until I say so, OK? You promised.”

I sighed. “Yes, Ellie, I remember I promised,” I said, wishing the word had never been invented.

Fifteen minutes later, and Ellie is asleep. The doorbell rings, and it’s not Mrs McMillan, or the police. It’s Jessica. And Ellen.

So much for keeping quiet, Jess. You know that Lila will never trust you again, right?

The three girls bond over the severity of the situation, and Lila is adamant (and convinced) that Ellie will want to go home to her mother after she’s had a decent night’s kip. I’m not so sure.

Jessica and Ellen offer to stay over at Fowler Crest, to keep Lila company. That’s friendship, right there.

Next morning, Ellie wakes Lila and whinily requests to watch cartoons. Lila takes it in good grace, outwardly, but inside she’s ratty and peevish. Understandable. She tries to manipulate a churlish Ellie into wanting to return home. Of course, it doesn’t work, as cajoling and logic are meaningless in the face of a full-on hissy-fit tantrum. Ellie screams that Lila promised that she’d never tell on Ellie, kicking the covers off the bed and walloping the pillow.

As the furore reaches a crescendo, Lila hears a car in the driveway. It’s Daddy Fowler, back from his trip a touch early!

Lila hammers on the guestroom door to wake Jessica and Ellen. She needs her friends to help her hide the evidence, and to hide Ellie herself.

Of course, Mr Fowler is particularly distant this time. He greets his daughter and the Unicorns, sure, but retreats immediately to his study like the full-on bossman he is.

Jessica and Ellen do their best to persuade Lila to reveal Ellie’s whereabouts to her father, but Lila is determined to hide Ellie until she figures out a way to make her want to go home of her own accord. Jessica ups the ante with a dose of harsh reality.

“Get real, Lila!” Jessica said. “How do you think you’re going to keep your dad from finding Ellie today? And what about Mrs. McMillan? The babysitter has probably called her already. I’ll bet they’ve even called the police.”

The police? I felt the blood rush from my face. I hadn’t thought about the police. Ellie had been with me for nearly twelve hours. I could probably be arrested for kidnapping!

I know the series has a propensity for exaggeration in places, but honestly? Lila’s damn right here. I mean, she’ll be fine, of course: she’s rich and white, and it’s Sweet fucking Valley. But even so. Real life consequences here.

Ellen and Jessica declare that they can’t sit around and watch Lila’s life implode, so they head off to the Field Day.

No sooner had they left, but the front door slams… it’s Mrs Pervis, back from visiting her daughter!

“Mrs. Pervis,” I said, running downstairs again. “What are you doing home?”

Mrs. Pervis sighed. “Oh, I’d forgotten how much my son-in-law gets on my nerves. I left early.”

Genuine lol there. Best Mrs Pervis line of the entire run so far.

Mrs Pervis fusses over Lila, who sends her off the scent of shenanigans by feigning illness and injury. Pervis smells a rat, naturally, and in desperation Lila tries to deflect the housekeeper’s attention by mentioning her freshly-returned father. This does the trick, as Mrs Pervis begins to bustle and fret for him instead of his daughter. Lila 1, Pervis 0. [Dove: This was a great move by Lila. A+]

Back in her bedroom, Lila manages to placate a frenetic Ellie with another of her precious dolls, which is promptly ruined when Ellie dips its head in the sink. [Dove: *weeps and mumbles something about the red Mimic custom*] Lila also drills into Ellie the importance of silence, as it’ll be impossible to hide the child if she continues making noise.

The inevitable phonecall comes, fielded offscreen by Mr Fowler, and eventually he comes to Lila’s room. Ellie is hidden under the bed.

Good old dependable George tells Lila that Mrs McMillan has called. Ellie is missing, and Linda is beside herself with worry. The police are involved, and the call to the Fowlers was to see if Lila had noticed anything unusual the last time she saw the four-year-old.

Lila wants to confess, but she can’t.

My dad shook his head, defeated. “I was afraid of that,” he said. His jaw clenched. “This is terrible. What would make a child like Ellie run away?” He sighed. “All I can figure is that she was kidnapped. Only the most despicable kind of person would take a child,” he said. “What a horrible thing for Mrs. McMillan to have to face. I only hope that when the person who did this is caught, he or she is sent to jail for years. Years!”

I could hardly breathe, I was so scared. I couldn’t tell my dad about Ellie now, even if I hadn’t promised. He’d hate me!

Now… here’s where you want a mind like Jessica’s.

Hear me out.

Ellie is afraid that Gerard is “stealing” her mother away. She wants her mother all to herself. So how to get Gerard removed from the frame? A couple of anonymous phonecalls to the police and to the press, and maybe one or two to the more inflammatory local residents, and Gerard, accused but unable to direct authorities to Ellie’s remains, would be hounded out of the town for being a wrongun and put on a register for life. Then Ellie is “miraculously” found, and she and her mother can resume their co-dependant lives in peace.

I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m just saying, two birds one stone. [Dove: Wow. What did I marry?] [Raven: #BleakestValley]

Ellie emerges from under the bed once Mr Fowler has retreated from the room. She’s heard everything that George had to say. Lila hopes this has made Ellie aware of the severity of the situation, but no. If anything, Ellie becomes more of a hellion that Lila thought possible.

“My mommy and Mr. Stillman are going to go away and leave me all by myself if you send me home!” she said fearfully. Then her face tightened into an angry pout. “I’ll scream if you tell them I’m here,” she threatened. “Then the police will arrest you.”

Okay… Lila shouldn’t have let it get this far. But she has, and things are shitty. But it’s here, HERE, that the gloves are off. I get that Ellie is hurting, and only four years old, but she’s now being a total bitch. It’s at this point that any promises made to this mewling, petulant crotch-rat should be considered null and void. Grab this kid by the arm and march her to George’s study.

Lila, of course, does not. She will not break her word.

This book is getting a touch repetitive at this point, and the recap is already cresting a cool 10k in words. So forgive my brevity for the following sections.

One: Ellie demands ice cream. Immediately. Lila has the bright idea to send the chauffeur Richard to fetch one in the limo.

Two: Ellie demands Lila read her a story. Lila does, on repeat, for over an hour, until her voice is hoarse.

Three: Ellie demands food. Specifically, peanut butter and banana and jelly. Lila prepares the food, but it is discarded because the jelly was green (mint) and not purple (grape). I mean, I think Ellie has a valid point here. Who the fuck has mint jelly (jam) on a fucking sandwich?! Posh bellends. [Dove: I now want to try mint jelly (jam).]

Four: Ellie threatens to scream the place down if Lila doesn’t send Richard to fetch purple jelly. This culminates with an irritated George banging on the door to complain about the noise.

I ran to the door and peeked out. “Sorry, Daddy,” I said. “I was just listening to a new heavy-metal band.”

Hah! In my head, she’s listening to Cattle Decapitation.

Five: The Unicorns, gathered with Lila later that morning and all clued up on the situation, each try to reason with Ellie. Nothing works. Ellen is literally a demon child. She’s 100% Kyles Mom.

Things begin to build again, with the Unicorns doing their best to placate Ellie and bring her round, but Ellie rebuffing their every advance and threatening to scream the house down should she not get her own way. Lila is still adamant that she won’t break her word.

Then, in a frankly spectacular fashion, Elizabeth comes up with the solution. And this time? I stand with her. It’s perfect, and exactly in her character to crack the puzzle.

Elizabeth had been sitting quietly in the circle, thinking. Suddenly, she smiled. “Lila,” she said, pulling me into a corner of the room.

“I’m going to scream…” Ellie threatened in a low voice.

“I have to calm Ellie,” I said to Elizabeth, trying to pull away.

Elizabeth shook her head. “No you don’t,” she said.

“But she’ll scream,” I said, glancing anxiously at Ellie, whose mouth was beginning to open.

“Exactly,” Elizabeth said, grinning.

I looked at her as if she were crazy. “Huh?”

Elizabeth glanced at the rest of the group, then back at me. “You don’t have to tell anyone where Ellie is,” she said softly. “Let Ellie tell where Ellie is.”

Gotta say, I didn’t see that resolution coming. Well done Elizabeth, and well done Ghostie. [Dove: Agreed. A+ for Liz and the ghostie.]

So! The Unicorns refuse to bow to Ellie’s whim, and call her bluff. True to her word, she screams bloody murder, and Mr Fowler discovers everything. Thus, we head to the book’s denouement, and I’m hitting the bullets because I’m pretty tapped out.

  • Mrs McMillan comes to collect her child. She is angry, initially.
  • Lila tells Linda about her daughter’s worries, and she is somewhat mollified.
  • We learn that the plan to disappear without Ellie was actually the Linda / Gerard honeymoon planning, and not at all sinister.
  • Ellie realises her mother, and Gerard, love her very much.
  • Lila explains the logic of her not-breaking-the-promise approach, and Linda thanks her for at least having Ellie’s safety at the forefront of her mind. [Wing: BUT DID SHE?]
  • The Unicorns head to the Seventh Heaven Field Day.
  • Before she goes, Lila talks frankly with her father about her loneliness. Mr Fowler promises to be more present in his daughter’s life (beard!), while Lila admits she’s learnt some hard truths about being a parent.

So all that’s left is a wrap-up vanity chapter in which George and Lila bluster through the creation of a crab and rice casserole for the Sunday potluck / fuddle. It’s a cute scene. This is followed by a scene at the potluck itself, with more food porn, and some foreshadowing for the next book about acting in a play with the boys. Something they have definitely done in a previous book.

Aaaaand that’s a wrap! Thanks for coming, everyone.

Final Thoughts:

This book was a disappointment.

I found it repetitive, so much so that I lost a lot of empathy for the emotionally overwhelmed four-year-old Ellie and the Valley’s resident poor little rich girl Lila. Maybe other readers were touched by their relative plights, but much of it left me cynical and cold. I’m not a parent, nor particularly birth-family-centric, so the subject matter didn’t resonate.

While I do empathise with Lila’s character in general, I much prefer the sassy girl that answers back and takes no shit to the lonely damp squib that we focus on here. There’s room for both, but the balance felt off in the final half of the book.

But! There were nice touches. Some of the foreshadowing to Ellie’s meltdown was nuanced and well written, and there were moments of joy. Elizabeth’s clever solution, Mrs Pervis’s shade on her son-in-law, and more. The book does have merit.

I just think I wanted the story to be about something different.

[Dove: I was just hoping for something else. I think looking at the front cover, I always assumed that Lila would be asked to babysit and find out that babysitting all day everyday would not be the same as having a nice couple of hours of storytime every few days. And based on that, I thought it would be funnier and sassier. As Raven said, it was very repetitive and it wore thin after awhile. It was fine to read because you can just breeze through, but when you break it down you realise how much ground is covered and then re-covered, then re-covered.]

[Wing: It had such potential and yet ghostie failed at telling a story without repeating things a billion times and burying any sort of actual emotion and entertainment. Plus I cannot believe that Elizabeth fucking Wakefield would sit by and not tell someone about Ellie. That’s her form of interference.]