"Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!"
Sir Walter Scott (As quoted by Sister Elizabeth MacIntosh, and recalled - with appropriate guilt - by Dorothy Coughlin, Freshman, Sacred Heart Academy, New-burgh, New York, 1956.)
DOROTHY COUGHLIN is an Irish Catholic policeman's daughter who spends the summer after her first year in high school as a mother's helper on a weathly estate outside Philadelphia. Dorothy's upbringing (one in which salvation is not so much by either faith or works as by platitude) has ill prepared her for the pleasures and pitfalls of life among the Hoades.
The household consists of the two spoiled, but anxious little charges, a handsome, but curiously crude Mr. Hoade, and his wife, a scatterbrained, near alcoholic. It is Mrs. Hoade's total lack of Sacred Heart Academy's vaunted virtues of discipline, organization, and concentration that serves to warn Dorothy of what, unreformed, she herself might well become and to stir her sympathier.
There are two more members of the family, unseen, but all the more disfamily, unseen, but all the more disturbing in their absence - a mongoloid baby, who, Mrs. Hoade has told her daughters, has a "bald cold," and thus must live in isolation in the cottage across the field with her German nurse - and a great grandmother who, the mother explains, has gone to a kind of resort for "elderly people who want to have a little vacation."
But Maria Hoade is a liar. Dorothy, who was caught lying to Reverend Mother in front of the school assembly, understands why a person might lie, but still she just can't seem to leave Mrs. Hoade's lies alone.
I began this book laughing with delight at Rosemary Wells's marvelous re-creation of fourteenness - the fervid rejoicing over a mistake not made, the strain of drinking a Coke noiselessly in the presence of an adult one is struggling to impress, furtively removing and disposing of one's ruined stockings, only to have them returned by a smilling porter. And for those of us who grew up pious in the '40a and '50s there is that ever losing battle for goodness - the feverish yielding to the very temptation one has seconds before praised God for the power to overcome.
I began the book laughing. I ended it in goosebumps. In between I had gobbled up red herrings like gum drops.
To say that Wells deceived me right up until the next to the last page is to acknowledge her ability as a writer of suspense, but it is the shimmering threads of humor and human insight with which she has spun her tale that completely entrap the reader.