The gist is that the song, contrary to what we think we know about it, isn't about the real Prudence Farrow (Mia's sister, in India with the Beatles) at all. It's really about the Beatles themselves (note: I'm on Cape Cod, and lazier than usual, so I'm not going with the capital T). When the Beatles sing can you come out to play, they're really beseeching themselves, not Mia's sister. And, in a particularly effective acoustic point by Sheffield, when the Beatles sing look around, they're looking for Ringo, who had just quit the group (I heard that questing harmony in my head when I read Sheffield's words).
Now, every song that anyone has ever written is really more about the writer than the subject of the song, and Sheffield has to know that. So what he's saying here is not a truism, but a penetrating piece of Beatles biography: the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up when Lennon wrote and John, Paul, and George recorded the song (with Paul not Ringo on drums, as Sheffield explains). And the three very much didn't want to lose Ringo, because they saw that on some level as losing themselves. The result: well, Ringo came back (because of a letter from the Beatles not the song), but his leaving was prelude to the real break-ups ahead.
Which raises a question that Sheffield has not (yet) addressed, but which always occurred to me. Why did the Beatles so value Ringo? In their letter, they tell him he's the greatest rock 'n' roll drummer, but that's probably not true. But John, Paul, and George saw him as essential to their band and I've always wondered why.
Not that I would have rather seen any other drummer with the Beatles. The band including Ringo was every bit as remarkable and unique and towering in importance as Sheffield says. But - Ringo didn't write many or any of their songs, didn't sing much if any harmony, sang leads that were enjoyable enough but not extraordinary (though I've always considered his "Back Off Boogaloo" - which he not only sang but wrote - one of the best post-Beatle songs). So what magic, then, did Ringo somehow contribute? If the Beatles, as Sheffield correctly says, got the world to fall in love with them, how did Ringo get John, Paul, and George to fall in love with him?
The song - I'm still on "Back Off Boogaloo" - was supposed to be a shot at Paul, which Ringo denied, but I've always agreed with I. A. Richards' thesis that the author is the last person you should ask about the meaning of a work. Which is another reason that Sheffield's analyses of the real meaning of "Dear Prudence" and other Beatles songs is so appealing.
And I'm off for Cape dinner, and will be back with more soon.
See also Review of Rob Sheffield's Dreaming the Beatles 1 of X: The Love Affair ... 2 of X: The Heroine with a Thousand Faces ... 4 of X: Paradox George ... 5 of X: The Power of Yeah