Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder
Drawings by Abigail Halpin
Random House, 2010.
301 pages, hardcover.
What if you were really bored with your life?
What would you wish for?
Penelope Grey wishes for something (anything!) interesting to happen, and here’s what she gets:
Her father quits his job. Her family runs out of money. Her home becomes a pit of despair.
So Penelope makes another wish, and this time the Greys inherit a ramshackle old house in the middle of nowhere. Off they go, leaving the city and their problems behind them. Their new home is full of artists, tiny lions, unusual feasts, and true friends. Almost immediately, their lives are transformed. Penelope’s mother finds an unexpected job, her father discovers a hidden talent, and Penelope changes her name! ~publisher’s comments
I first discovered Penny Dreadful on “The Mixed-up Files… of Middle Grade Authors” on their “September  New Releases” post.
The premise caught my attention. I liked the title. And the cover was cute.
Penelope Grey is a Reader. She escapes into books, haunted by boredom. Books influence her view of the world around her, as well as her approach. She compares her life to books and uses books to inspire action and reaction. Yep, Penny Dreadful has a touch of meta-fiction. The upside of Penelope Grey being a Reader: 1) Titles mentioned will provide a nice little reading list for middle graders. 2) It makes for gems such as “It felt like a wholesome, boring lesson at the end of the worst kind of book” (290). “If this were a book, I would have [achieved the easy, dramatic, and somewhat magical solution]” (300). 3) She will likely inspire children to look at their bookshelves anew and try, as Penelope did, to allow a book to inspire action.
Each morning she stood in front of her bookshelf with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and ran a finger down the spines of the bindings, stopping whenever the mood struck her. Then she’d pull out that particular book, flip to a random page, and do whatever the people in that book happened to be doing.
In this way, Penelope succeeded in exploring her (dusty) attic, planting some (cucumber) seeds, inventing her own secret language, starting a diary, roller-skating up and down the halls… (7)
Shoot, I’m tempted. I am also tempted to write a story using this technique. I had a friend who wrote a story using tarot cards as a compass, directing the outcomes of her characters.
What was difficult for me (and unexpected) was that Penelope Grey is not just your average everyday girl. I suppose, in the vein of classic female protagonists, she is wealthy, privileged, and white. She is also a protagonist that is hard to dredge up much sympathy for, especially in contemporary fiction. But then, I suppose most of her readership should be able to identify and empathize with her, because I suppose she might actually be average.
It often felt as if the novel was scornfully mocking its protagonist (Ah, yes, her life is just dreadful.) Yet, at other times, it seemed to defend her self-absorption as inevitable due to ignorance and neglect; children left to their own devices while residing in an insulated world. Then there is: Reading about life does not substitute the living of it. Life doesn’t begin at inspiration, but at the action resulting from inspiration.
Penny Dreadful begins with taking risks, and with the idea that even rich people can be unhappy. If you haven’t community, even within family, than you will be unhappy, no matter your financial status. The consequences of taking the big risk is not necessarily pleasant, but it is necessary. The novel spends its pages dispensing misery after Penelope’s father quits his job because he hates it. He wants to write instead. The mother maintains the finances, but it isn’t until they move to Tennessee and the less than ideal circumstances there does she look for work. Penelope is the helpless spectator. Alas, the risks become worth it in the end. This is a Hallmark or Disney film in the making, even as Penny Dreadful so desires to avoid it. Riches to Rags story finding its soul in the impoverished but warm embrace of the simpler and productive life. A return to boot-straps and its subsequent polish.
This is a hard book to read during a Recession, as an adult. As Natalya is all too aware of our life of unemployment, Mr. Grey’s actions are likely to be a slap in the face for her as well. Pre-recession, I doubt she would have flinched. I should test this.
With the change in circumstances and location, Penelope changes her name Penny. What inspires the name Penny is her coming across an old collection of penny dreadfuls, as opposed to simply suggested Penny as a likely iteration of Penelope (87-8). Her name changes to Penny, and her life is dreadful.
Dreadful: Causing or involving great suffering, fear, or unhappiness; extremely bad or serious. Extremely disagreeable. (Oxford English Dictionary)
The sunshine yellow cover of the novel is appropriate. Despite the dreadfulness of her circumstances, Penny does not take an overly Grimm grim path (or even a classic literary path). Penny Dreadful works hard at being realistic enough, and it refuses to end on an easy note, but it also wouldn’t leave the Reader in despair (or requiring abridged copies). There is a hopeful ending. Really, you just want to hold hands with someone afterward and sing a song from Annie (you know which one).
It had a rough start for me, but it picked up once life got going in Tennessee. Penny learning to have friends, to not make assumptions about people, to rely on others and know that they can rely on you. I really enjoyed Penny’s realization that she had no Inner Resources (that she could identify). She makes the effort, takes risks, and learns self-reliance—even as she learns to rely on her friends (the bff being non-white and everyone being poor). This is a really nice aspect to the story. A child born out of a life where everything was done for her learning to do for herself, I can get behind a book like that. Set in a contemporary and real setting (not Fantasy) is really nice. Sure there is a hint of Magic (however potentially argued away) and the roots of being privileged do not dissipate, but this is an easy sell for middle class and upward white Readers. Though, it’s likely more could enjoy this one, Snyder is good with the humor and the adventure.
I didn’t know what to do with Penny Dreadful’s layout. The novel is partitioned into 5 Books, with four chapters each though they continue numbering through from 1-20. The Books are unnecessary. Is the novel was being clever and creating a connection to the penny dreadful and its serialized stories? I suppose the breaks with the Books would make reasonable slices for serialized publication, but the story isn’t serialized. It was published complete. Or was it serialized first and then published? Clever would be to release it serially first (in print or on-line), wouldn’t it? But could Penny Dreadful do it? I’m not sure it is compelling enough, but with the right publication…
Then there is the noticeable absence of the dark, which is a necessary link to the penny dreadful, so I guess serializing it to mimic penny dreadfuls is moot…
In writing this post out, I went hunting for the link for the post that had me adding Penny Dreadful to the TBR. I remembered that the site had since interviewed the author Laurel Snyder. (It is a nice interview and I had read it. In a way, glad I had forgotten it, though I did enjoy it at the time.)
We’re curious, how did you come up with the idea for Penny Dreadful?
That’s a funny question, actually. Because the idea for Penny Dreadful was very different than the book I ended up with. Initially, I imagined Penny as a darker book, more ironic. It was to be called “Penny Dreadful’s Favorite Fears, and she was going to be this odd little character, who had a series of– for lack of a better word– neuroses. And the book was going to be the story of how she overcame them. I wanted it to be a little Dahl-esque, maybe a little Snickety. But also, I had Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in mind when I began. I wanted each chapter to be an episode, a neurosis. Then, naturally, the book that came out was entirely different! Much softer, sweeter. Who was it that said, “You have to get out of the way of the book that wants to be written?” Someone smart said that!
While I truly do appreciate how a story can change, I wish some of its beginnings hadn’t lingered. The original idea explains the Books and the penny dreadful reference beautifully. I would still love to see said idea come to fruition. However, it would’ve done to have for Penny Dreadful (as is) to have shed a bit more of its cleverness, or have morphed it into Parts instead of Books. Of course, this is not a big deal for most. And I doubt it will or should affect most people’s read of the novel. I just found it’s lingering curious.
Do you find these kinds of details (potential devices) important? and if not successful, dampening?
In the End…
Wow, it seems this post is not coming off as the most positive review…
Penny Dreadful has received a lot of praise, and I am certain it is worthy of it. I didn’t go in resistant, reluctant, or even looking to nit-pick. The writing is good, the story nicely delivered. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading the novel, but my recommendation is reluctant. I am aware of an audience, as is the novel. I think I provided some appeal somewhere here-in, some clue as to who the audience may be, and what timing might be best considered. Shall we leave it at that? at least for now…
The Willoughby’s by Lois Lowry came to mind while reading Penny Dreadful. I highly recommend it if you’ve yet to read it.