With her mother an ardent feminist full of good intentions and nonsexist theories, Miranda’s experience with dolls is practically nil.
Background: This is one of those titles with a cult following where the plot seems to be widely mis-remembered 40 years on. Most descriptions sum it up as “Shrill feminist mom goes too far!” which is not quite the case: despite being published by Houghton-Mifflin and not Harper & Row, this is a a tale of dysfunctional parents and an precocious child coming of age in 1970s New York. Miranda Alexis Perry would fit right in with Harriet M. Welch, Annabel Andrews and Davy Ross.
The Plot: Miranda’s age is never specifically stated, but she appears to be about 11 or 12; the daughter of a famous sociology professor and founder of a Feminist bookstore and magazine, Miranda is forever being pawned off on her mother’s long-suffering academic friends, for have no use for the chubby, morbidly introverted Miranda.
As the book opens her glamorous mother, Olivia, has deposited Miranda at a Mrs. Nesbit’s house while she jets off for Vermont with her equally glamorous and intellectual boyfriend, Alistair.
Exploring in Mrs. Nesbit’s attic, she comes across an antique bisque doll with a full wardrobe and is eager to learn the history of the doll, but instead comes downstairs in time to catch Mrs. Nesbitt gossiping about her:
“School friends?” Mrs. Nesbit laughed. “Have you seen her? She is your classic miserable child. She’s that sad, sullen, little troll we all remember who sat in the back of the classroom for years and who nobody ever cared to know.”
Six pages in and Adults are already being The Worst! Mrs. Nesbit has no use for dolls, and gives the doll, named Dinah, to Miranda, who can hardly believe her good fortune. The only problem is how to hide her treasure from Olivia:
“Goodness, Miranda, you ARE interested in her, aren’t you? What WOULD Olivia think?”
Miranda looked her blankest.
“I am sure if you had been a boy she’d have given you dozens, but I bet for you, Miranda, it was Tonka trucks and model submarines from the beginning.”
Of course Miranda had not had much time to play with dolls or trucks. Olivia had sent her off to play groups ever since she could remember. Miranda loathed groups. They tire her out… She needed time to rest and dream.
Miranda’s silent rebellion to assert her own personality and preferences turns into a quietly heroic endeavor, as she hides the doll in the back of her walk-in closet and then has a brainstorm to build a hidden dollhouse, a process that brings a number of eccentric and supportive New Yorkers into her life.
Begging to stay home alone the first day of winter vacation, Miranda heads into a fancy midtown design shop, where she is first treated with skepticism by the receptionist and the other clientele, until she shares Dinah and her plans for the dollhouse with them, because it is absolutely accurate in its portrayal of New York as a city full of secret doll fanatics. A Mrs. Smalls gives Miranda her card and promises to serve as her personal designer, so that she can purchase supplies at wholesale, and the receptionist, Dusty, urges Miranda to get in touch with her sister, who also collects dolls.
Miranda’s work on the doll house is only interrupted by Olivia’s insistence that she socialize with Alistair’s daughter, the perfectly preppy Townsend.
“Towny” is also a perfect pill, interested only in gabbing about her incipient modeling career and snooping through Olivia’s closet, dismissing Miranda with a “So long, jerko!” at the end of the day.
The next morning Miranda gets a call from Dusty’s sister, Millie, inviting her to come over and show off Dinah. Miranda is uncertain about going, concerned that Dusty and Millie might be planning some sort of doll-heist, but eventually goes over, only to find that Millie is also young teenager, also somewhat awkward and stuck at home for the winter vacation.
The two girls hit it off famously, although Miranda is a touch envious of Millie’s fabulous doll collection and her family’s support of her hobby. Like Mrs. Smalls and Dusty, Miranda keeps her friendship with Millie a secret from her mother.
Olivia is hosting a New Year’s Eve party for her terrible academic friends, and makes Miranda wear a hideous outfit “which made her look like a potted Christmas tree” and pass around trays of canapés to adults who are drunk and gross. I even managed to feel sorry for Towny:
“Where’s Alistair?” Lydia Fenwick said.
“He should be here soon,” Olivia said uncertainly.
“Is he bringing the nymphet?” This from a very tall man.
“The what?” said a woman.
“That delicious child. You know he’s got a beauty there.”
Towny, who appears to be about 12, spends the night competing for her father’s attention, in ways that make me slightly concerned:
Towny stood between her father and the tall man, twirling a glass of something between her fingers until some of it splashed out and down the front of her blouse.
“Oooooooops. Oh, that feels lovely,” she smiled delightedly. “Where’s your john, Miranda? I’ve got to wring out my little chest.”
So, yeah, Towny probably has her own issues.
She also takes the opportunity to snoop in Miranda’s closet and when Olivia launches into her well-worn anecdote about how even as a baby Miranda found dolls SO BORING, Towny announces that Miranda has a WHOLE SECRET DOLLHOUSE in her closet.
Everyone is embarrassed and politely asks to see it, while Towny pouts that no one is laughing at Miranda and Olivia (ISSUES!)
Olivia wants to have a conversation with Miranda about why she felt like she had to keep it a secret, but it gets put off because of OLIVIA ISSUES which of course take precedent when she is suddenly fired from the university.
Troubled by seeing her mother so worried about money issues, Miranda attempts to sell Dinah to an antique dealer who refuses to take Miranda seriously (and in turn gets a good telling off by Mrs. Smalls, always ready to come to her young friend’s defense).
At the end Olivia and Miranda do have a conversation about the hardships of being a single mother (we learn that after Miranda was born Olivia left her husband to Seek Fulfillment) and I would like to say that mother and daughter come to an understanding and accept one another’s differences….
But Olivia remains pretty ghastly and self-centered to the very end, insisting that Miranda keep Dinah not because it is something she truly loves and provides a creative hobby for her, but instead:
“A symbol of independence of thought, of the courage to follow one’s bent in spite of propaganda, even popular and fashionable propaganda. Of not knuckling under. I need her around.”
Way to make it all about you, mom.
Sign It Was Written in 1977 Department: Miranda’s hideous dress:
Also, can we talk about Dusty as the Platonic Ideal of swinging single girls?