So, the general consensus for how these books get written is that Ann M. wrote a few outlines and delegated the actual writing to the ghostwriters. (I also like to believe that the top ranking ghostwriters, like Ellen Miles and Peter Lerangis, had some of their own books ghostwritten.) Anyway, my point is that Ann still had a lot of influence over what she was writing because only she would write a YA/children's lit book in which learning French embroidery is cooler than watching a drug special starring the Ninja Turtles, wearing ridiculously large trousers, or anything else that kids were really doing in 1993.
Nola Thacker ghostwrote this one. She's no Lerangis but she's credited with writing for a series called Laguna Beach (as in the real Laguna Beach?!) The book I looked up on amazon.com starts with the phrase, "'Headbanging sex.'" Right off the bat, you know this ghostwriter gets around. So my theory is that Ann M. may have commissioned a book about helping out a sweet old lady, but Nola conceived of it as a book about a passive aggressive, old biddy (perhaps a scathing send up of Ann M.) whose only pleasures in life involve writing daily letters to the Sun, obsessively re-organizing her quilt collection and ordering Mary Anne around.
So, in this book, Mary Anne meets an older woman, Mrs. Towne, who's super into sewing point and asks her for lessons. She agrees to pay Mrs. Towne, but later, Mrs. T falls and hurts her ankle. Mary Anne ends up helping Mrs. Towne around the house in exchange for her lessons, but after a while, Mrs. Towne starts taking advantage of MA. Eventually, she and MA have a talk where Mrs. Towne confesses to calling MA up because she was lonely a lot of the time. (Really? I hear Morbidda Destiny is on Twitter these days.) Mrs. Towne goes back to taking cash for the lessons. She says she'll solve the problem of the housework by hiring a housekeeper which she was planning on doing anyway.
Also, MA and Claudia teach a sewing class to a few kids in Stoneybrook (Nicky, Buddy, Haley, Vanessa, and Charlotte). At one point, Nicky and Buddy quit because a classmate teases them for sewing. They spend a lot of time overcompensating, doing manly things like eschewing cookies and building a fort. But then they rejoin sewing class and the class finishes a quilt with a gardening theme. And because this is the book right before Dawn makes her first travail back to California, there's non stop "Dawn misses California" foreshadowing.
- As of the first page, it's summer vacation yet again. Mary Anne rushes out the door to sit for the Arnold twins. As she heads out, Dawn looks at the window and says something about how good the sun feels on her face and that it reminds her of sunny California. Mary Anne runs out. As she slams the door, I assume that Dawn sighs and says something like, "Oh, wind. We had that in California, too. And doors."
- Mary Anne is surprised when she meets Mrs. Towne. Mrs. Towne isn't apple-cheeked or grandmotherly. And she's a little amazed that Mrs. Towne is wearing work pants instead of a dress. (What? You think it's easier to hide Depends in a skirt, is that it, MA? Way to stereotype the elderly.) God, I hate how it's supposed to be shocking in BSC world whenever an old woman wears trousers or doesn't enjoy baking or is registered to vote.
- Mrs. Towne shows Mary Anne around her house and then shows her the sewing room. When MA enters, she gasps. What? Is it a bug? The embalmed remains of Mr. Towne? (Where the hell is he, anyway? No one ever alludes to him. Even though she's clearly a Mrs. and she does have an adult son. I'm totally banking on there being a A Rose For Emily ending.)
- Oh, anyway. It's a pleater. It's a machine used for making pleats and smocking. And I don't even care a little. Why am I suddenly reminded of the Frasier where Frasier re-finds his 18th century English salt server and Niles's reaction is: "I've heard you speak about it, but I had no idea it was so magnificent" while Martin and Daphne roll their eyes? Yeah, that's basically my reaction to every sewing related reference in this entire book.
- So, the Widow Towne agrees to give MA lessons in exchange for cash. When Mary Anne shows up for her first official lesson, she rings the door but doesn't get a response. So she ventures into the house and finds Mrs. Towne lying on the kitchen floor. Oh no! Dead Mrs. Towne! Just kidding. It's more like this.
- I try to interject with, "Uh, and this is why you need Life Alert. Oh, and while I've got you here, could I sell you some Term Life Insurance? Don't you want to make sure your pleater and quilts are in safe hands when you pass?" But Mary Anne knows just what to do since she's been in an emergency before (see Mary Anne Saves the Day). She calls up 911 and then calls Richard (her lawyer-dad) to make sure that the Widow Towne can't hold her liable for anything, just in case.
- After Mrs. Towne goes to the hospital, Mary Anne mentions to the BSC that even though she could have gone home, she stayed a few days extra since she would pretty much be on her own at home. This book was written in '93? Damn, Medicare ain't what it used to be. Also, all this and it takes her an entire book of exploiting a teenage girl to shell out for a housekeeper?
- So Mary Anne and Claud take the kids to Mood to buy stuff for the quilt. They gush over all the different kinds of fabric. Like brown corduroy for a pansy face or perhaps velvet for a rose. After I revive myself by promising that I'll open a new packet of knock off Oreos if I finish this chapter, Mary Anne announces, "Designers, you have less than a minute left. Let's go. Designers!"
- At one point, the sewing class takes a road trip to see a special guest who will hopefully inspire them with their projects. (Ooh, Sarah Jessica Parker? No! Diane von Furstenberg?) No, it's a trip to Mrs. Towne's House of Undocumented Workers. While Mary Anne tuts over the state of Mrs. Towne's now dirty house, the kids ooh and ahh over the quilts. Really? REALLY? Because I see the visit going more like this. Buddy: "Ew, this place has got old-woman stink." And Mrs. Towne looking sad till Mary Anne pipes up with, "Don't listen to him--you've got an enchanting musk."
- Mary Anne comes over for a lesson post ankle break. Mrs. Towne asks Mary Anne if she'd like some tea. Mrs. Towne has some trouble with her crutches so when MA asks if she wants help, Mrs. Towne leans on her till they get to the kitchen, she then instructs her on how to make the tea. Mary Anne gets the tea pot, makes the tea, and then Mrs. Towne asks if she could trouble her to unload her groceries. Mary Anne complies as the Widow Towne bats her eye lashes and sighs, "I have always depended on the kindness of spineless adolescents."
- After, Mrs. Towne smiles menacingly, narrowing her beady eyes. (Okay, okay, she just "[looks] at Mary Anne thoughtfully.") Then she says, "'Mary Anne, instead of paying me for sewing lessons in money, why don't we do some good, old-fashioned bartering.'" Mary Anne catches on right away and asks Mrs. Towne if she's sure this is a fair agreement (that is, MA thinks it might be unfair to Mrs. Towne). Mrs. Towne privately cackles and thinks, "There's one born every minute." First off, if I were MA, I'd be all, "Bartering? I'm not playing the Oregon Trail, you old hag." And second, Mrs. Towne, if you're that cheap, just take a page from Caroline Kennedy and hire an illegal.
- Dawn has to sit for the Arnold twins midway through the book. She takes them to visit the Stoneybrook Mortuary, otherwise known as Mrs. Towne's humble abode. When she arrives, Mary Anne is mopping the floor. (Yes, this is the part depicted on the cover. Side note, Hodges, what's up with Carolyn Arnold? Crop top? Cowboy boots in summer? Fail!) Mary Anne accidentally tips over the bucket and says to herself, "At least I hadn't dropped the soap." Oh, that's probably what Lyle and Erik Menendez are saying to themselves in the shower every day. Afterward, Dawn asks Mary Anne to come with her so they can hang out when Dawn drops off the twins, but MA's too busy. Dawn sighs, presumably thinking, "Busy? I used to be busy when I lived in California" and leaves.
- Beep beep! Stacey misses a BSC meeting because her sitting job at the Barretts' runs over. This almost never happens, so it's kind of a big deal. The fact that it never happens in any other book makes me think that Nola Thacker was being all subversive. "So, Ann, you make me write a book where I have to extol the virtues of needlepoint. I'll make a BSC meeting coincide with a sitting job! Muhahaha." Yeah, this is pretty much the equivalent of rumpling your Felix Unger-esque significant other's carefully ironed underwear collection, or putting generic brand mustard on the customer's sandwich when they requested Grey Poupon. But being a ghostwriter is a thankless, hard job, and you takes your pleasures as you can.
- Later, Mrs. Towne calls MA at two separate BSC meetings because she needs help getting some sewing equipment down from the second floor. Mary Anne's a little pissed the second time, but all she does is respond with, "'Is it an emergency?'" and then when Mrs. Towne sounds hurt, saying that no, it isn't, she storms over, full of resentment and forced good will. Good lord, if this continues, I can so see Mrs. Towne following in Brooke Astor's foot steps. Wearing the same ratty old robe with appliqued kittens romping day in and day out. Confined by Mary Anne to one room of the house. Never given access to her sewing room. Her beloved pleater sold off till one day Annette de la Renta steps in.
- Then one Saturday, MA drops everything to go to to Mrs. Towne's House of Pain, even though she and Logan have a date to have a picnic lunch and then spend the day together. Turns out there's a wasp in the kitchen and it's distressing Goodwife Towne. Yeah, one time Tucker Carlson came over to show off his collection of argyle bow ties and just would not leave, but I dealt with it myself, Mrs. Towne, so grow a pair.
- Oh, and Mrs. Towne needs yet another box from the sewing room. (The fuck? Why didn't she just have MA bring them all down last time?) When Mary Anne tells Dawn where she and Logan are heading, Dawn eye rolls till MA asks her how she'd like to be old and helpless. Dawn: "'I'm not into helpless.'" No, of course not. Unless they're gorgeous single women with three kids who can barely do basic housework (cough, cough, Mrs. Barrett). Or unless it involves cutting up soda rings to protect the stupider seagulls and sea turtles who probably should remove themselves from the gene pool. Or helpless but delicious veal calves.
Wow, that is pretty cute. Sorry, Mrs. Towne, you can't compete.
- So then after Mary Anne does
Ann M.the Widow Towne's bidding, she and Logan try to head off into the sunset to enjoy the rest of their day. Except Mrs. Towne guilts them into staying and having picnic lunch on her sun porch. Mary Anne and Logan have nary a cojone nor an ovary between the lot of them so they give in and take their pimento cheese sandwiches over to the porch. Mrs. Towne and Logan even "[have] a long talk about the merits of pimento cheese sandwiches versus regular cheese sandwiches." Really? And then did you discuss the differences between crushed and cubed ice? (Crushed ice just being too much goshdarned excitement for a weekday.) Why do I also have the sinking feeling that Mrs. Towne is just waiting for Logan to get up so that she can get in a good pinch through his Dockers and then blame it on Mary Anne or her impending senility? This segment is SO Nola's revenge for that time Ann M. had Nola and her beau over for high tea and then wouldn't let them leave until she'd shown her every single one of her thimbles from around the world and each needle in her collection of interesting looking needles. ("This one's shaped like a needle! Isn't that something?" "Uh...")
- In the end, the kids give their friendship quilt (which they make awfully quickly for beginner sewers) to the Widow Towne. Ugh. I changed my mind. Mrs. Towne isn't a pathetic old lady. She just farmed out all her housework to Mary Anne and instead of getting a hard smack on her bony old behind, now she got a quilt out of it? She's a mastermind who fakes a sweet old homemaker persona, like Martha Stewart or Mom.
Below are a number of items I found on the Internet that I'm almost positive that Mrs. Towne had to have had a hand in making. It's not such a stretch to think that a lonely old woman whose only child has moved to Missouri to get away from her would think that a Yorkie wants--no, NEEDS--a bathrobe with an appliqued duck on it.
And look at this. A onesie with a stitched on monkey. Presumably sent to her firstborn grandchild, only to be stamped with RETURN TO SENDER when said son in Missouri realized that Mom had sent his ten year old an outfit with an eyeless simian.
After being rebuffed by everyone--her latest runaway kitten (please, don't you think there's a reason that an insane old woman like Mrs. Towne doesn't have a cat or eighty in her house?), her son, her dead husband who refuses to answer the seances--Mrs. Towne started to go a little insane. Somewhere in the bowels of her cute little cottage, there's probably a room filled with stuff like this:
And what will happen now that Mary Anne has dumped her? She's going to snap entirely. I give you Mrs. Towne's most frightening, post Mary Anne work. To look upon it is to go mad. THEY'RE DOGS! ...AND THEY'RE PLAYING POKER!
In conclusion, I just want to say that I almost wish this had been a Jessi book so I could work in a Driving Miss Daisy reference. But then I guess the idea of Jessi as a maid would get the black readers even more pissed than they were at the thought of the new African American Disney princess being called Maddy.