Book review: ‘The Penderwicks at Last’

Birdsall’s book series concludes with ‘enchanting read for kids and adults’

In Jeanne Birdsall’s popular “Penderwick” series, each successive book kept getting more intense.

Until now.

Indeed, if this set of kids’ novels is a five-course meal, then the latest makes a tasty dessert.

Released in May, “The Penderwicks at Last” is the fifth and final tale about the titular family, which started with four girls and a widowed father in 2007’s “The Penderwicks.”

Call that delectable intro an appetizer (though it is a substantial one!), followed by a nourishing “salad course” in “Penderwicks on Gardam Street” (2010). Books 3 and 4 served up hefty entrees that resolved tough parent-child issues without detracting from the series’ cheery humor and upbeat outlook.

“Last” focuses on 11-year-old Lydia, newest addition to the growing family, as she helps the rest of the gang prepare for the wedding of oldest sister Rosalind (fans can probably guess who the lucky guy is, but you won’t get his name from me!).

Turns out Rosy and beau want to hold their ceremony at the family’s beloved vacation spot, the Arundel estate. Wondrous setting for the first book, Arundel is shrouded in mystery and legend because the Penderwicks have never returned, and Lydia wasn’t even born when they first visited.

In this way, Birdsall winds up her series by going back where it started, revisiting the first book’s beloved sites, stories and old friends — along with at least one noted enemy. Yet in spite of the redoubtable Mrs. Tifton (who really isn’t such a bad lady), there’s not much conflict in this episodic conclusion; just a few misadventures, several new friends, some mild surprises and enough meditation on “destiny” to suggest one or two more marriages.

And those animals!

“Penderwicks at Last” is bursting with beloved beasts, recalling the heroic Hound from Book 1 and bringing back family cat Asimov from other installments. Then there are new dogs Feldspar and Sonata; a three-legged Great Dane named Hitch; a sheep called Blossom who enjoys Lewis Carroll; and the intrepid Hatshepsut (named for an Egyptian pharaoh), a hen who is determined to climb the stairs in Arundel’s two-story cottage. Not to mention an array of quirky but nameless frogs, owls, beetles, spiders and bobolinks.

One thing I love about these books is that, in the tradition of “Little Women,” they present terrific role models for young girls without making boys and men look witless or unnecessary. Here I was especially wowed by a few short scenes with Batty’s former boyfriend Wesley, who recalls the apparently omni-competent neighbor Nick Geiger from Book 4.

With her sun-soaked summer setting and smooth, carefree story, Birdsall sometimes has to work too hard for laughs, so some of the dialog and wisecracks feel artificial.

Nonetheless, “Last” is an enchanting read for both kids and adults; and it ends by reminding us of the similarity between author Jeanne and third-oldest sister Jane, a writer who — as Wesley predicts — might wind up penning a five-book series. And with the story-strand involving Batty, there’s a hint of another series as well. How tantalizing!

“The Tiftons” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Penderwicks,” but I’d snap it up in an instant.

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