Julie Beckworth (26, bronze hair, splendidly built) works in an old Victorian hospital in London for a lovely old professor. Victorian hospital? Expect a fire. Old professor? Expect him to be felled by an unspecified illness moving at a glacial, but inexorable, pace. Retirement imminent.
Enter his replacement, Professor Simon van der Driesma, a tall drink of water and 'any girl's dream', wedded to his work and able to wring generous snack trays from the taciturn ladies of the hospital canteen who 'hand out ill nature with meat and two veg'. Right out of the gate he is annoyed by and annoying Julie. He takes exception to her sterling qualities. She is prickly because he calls her 'Miss Beckworth' and looks at her as though she is 'about to explode'.
They circle warily for a few weeks until he asks her to accompany him to Holland for some lectures. Then comes the part that I didn't care for:
She spends much of this part of the book acting like one of my least favorite kinds of women--the kind that will wait in the car until her date figures out that he should open her door for her. Though I approve of door opening and teaching the men young all about it, I think pointing out a man's carelessness in so pointed a way is rude.
Julie gets huffy when her boss (who pays her to do a job, last I checked) asks her to do hard things with little warning or doesn't give her a 24-hour run-down of scheduled activities. I know The Great Neels was looking to create conflict and also to remind our hero that he's become high-handed and selfish but Julie is still his employee and I wish she'd just have braved it silently (thus earning our and our hero's admiration) or been more direct with job-related complaints ("Sir, if you might give me a rough outline of how little tea I will get today..."). Instead, she comes off as martyred. And that's not our splendid Julie at all.
Thus ends the part I didn't like. The rest is charming.
While in Holland Julie uses a 'portable computer'. I have no doubt that by this time The Venerable Neels was using a computer to run up her manuscripts but even though mentions of computers are interlarded throughout the book it is difficult from her descriptions to imagine them as anything other than rather large unwieldy paperweights that Julie thumps on and hauls about. Now if Julie had ever been chatted up by Nathan the Network Admin. whilst having her C Drive worked on then I'd have bought it...
Simon spends some time in Holland with crossover characters Gijs and Beatrice van der Eckerk (who have a daughter named Alicia (Wedding Bells for Beatrice) and asks his dog (if I had a dog I'd talk to it too) if they'll ever find a Beatrice for themselves.
And then Julie, coming out of a hospital lobby, catches the good doctor snogging a blonde harlot with a scarlet (rhymes with harlot) Mini right in front of everybody! Er, girlfriend, point of order. The defense concedes that the Scarlet Harlot was indeed a blonde. And that his look to her was loving. And we freely admit to an embrace. But on such thin gruel, Julie builds a whole banquet of conjecture.
Parted lovers, his future wife, a given heart...It's all the same to her.
Back in England, Simon is disturbed by Julie. He's annoyed by her calm air and her diligence--and her splendid figure probably doesn't help either. If Simon were a young infantryman then Julie is Marie the Flame of Florida.
And then he asks her to go to Brighton.
And her mother and sister come to Brighton too.
Let me set your fevered mind at rest, gentle reader. Here, Brighton is merely a lovely day-trip, complete with fruit machines and tea shoppes instead of a sortie into the Hinterlands of Debauchery.
Little sister Esme and mother get along swimmingly with the vast, blonde giant and you can see Esme's inability to read social cues being an asset from a mile away. For her part, Julie finds herself feeling like poor Charlie Bucket--every other poppet in the village is getting candy from the Candyman and she's got her nose pressed to the glass. Why does Simon smile so nicely at Esme and speak so kindly with Mother? Where's her golden ticket?
Luscombe, the trusty family retainer who dishes up British proverbs and melted cheese dishes with the same paternal manner, conferences with Mrs. Beckworth about Julie's love life. 'Is nibs would do very well for their girl...
Which leads to a digression:
Mrs. Beckworth and Luscombe have an obvious passion for one another that, as yet unrequited, will carry them aloft into a tempestuous sea towards matrimonial blisss. He's a man. He is housekeeping for a woman...who doesn't pay much. His regard for her children is evident. Enquiring minds want to know, Who's the Boss?
Simon goes off for more lectures and Julie, alone in the office, is startled by Slim Sid--a flim-flam man. No, but seriously, The Neels names him Slim Sid. (I can't stop for everything so lets move along.) He roughs up Julie and knocks over some priceless mid-90s office furniture.
In retaliation the Amazon hefts an ugly Victorian inkstand and chucks it in Sid's general direction...narrowly missing the happily intact cranium of our rich, Dutch doctor.
It was nearly bashing in his head that causes Julie to realize that, despite Scarlet Harlot (whose picture and frame Slim Sid had tried to nick), she loves him herself. Drat.
She has a date soon after with Red Herring (no, of course it's not but it amounts to the same thing). He is a nice fellow who is......zzzzzzzzzzz...... The point is that the doctor sees her from 30 yards away (30 feet maybe, Betty) at the Cafe' Royal cozying up to a man other than himself.
He doesn't like the idea of Red Herring taking her off to New Zealand as his wife and it is only one teeny tiny step further to his own dawning realization and an even tiny-er hop to intending to marry her. (What purpose! What decisiveness! As Paula Cole would say, "Where have all the cowboys gone?")
Next comes my most favorite part. In a bid to win her notice and liking he assumes such an air of bon homie that Julie is puzzled. I can hear her ticking over his behavior in her brain:
- He smiled at me several times today.
- He said a cheerful 'Good morning' each time he came and went from his office.
- He's forewarned me of an upcoming trip to Holland
In Holland (without Julie), Simon informs his family of his desire to marry Julie and sends a postcard to Esme.
When he returns she is so happy that she must retreat to cold indifference to keep herself from flinging her person into his arms: "...when she asked him in a quelling voice if he would like to come in, her stony face daring him to do so, he remarked that he would be delighted." And then he asks the whole family to La Boheme.
Y-eeeeeee--ssssss. Okay. The women are looking ill at ease. There is a question of clothes. On the big night, Esme is begging to be a font of information on the family finances, a shared cashmere coat called "The Coat" that they all share around (because even though it gets used year after year no one can cavil at cashmere, can they?), and their jury-rigged and cobbled together wardrobes. "I like the blue thing you are wearing." "You'll never guess--" began Esme.
Then comes the inevitable Victorian hospital fire. The most noteworthy thing about Julie's entrapment and subsequent rescue from the records room is that, in the midst of all that upset, she still manages to retrieve the patient notes that she went looking for in the first place. You can't pay for that kind of dedication anymore.
The hospital dance occurs just a week later and affords an excuse to wear another hastily salvaged outfit with too-tight sandals and 'The Coat'. He looked down at her and wondered with a flash of tenderness from where she had unearthed her dress...Whatever it was, she looked beautiful in it, but then she would make a potato sack look elegant.
Shortly thereafter he offers her a ride home and she refuses. "Hey, look,' she says. "You've got a girl in Holland that I'm sure I haven't imagined out of whole cloth because that would be irresponsible and whatnot, soooooo..."
He seizes his opportunity and kisses her into next week and..... BLEEP. Argh. British bleeps! (That's beepers to you, Americanos.)
The kiss is shelved and they agree to ignore it. Oh and, by the way, could she come to Holland again for a few days? I love when he tells her, "You had better borrow the coat, it may be cold!"
By this time he has told his mother, all his siblings, Mrs. Beckworth (and by extension her forbidden lover, Luscombe) and his own man-servant Blossom that he's going to marry Julie. Oh, and the Scarlet Harlot was just a little sister.
He finally asks her the first morning after they come to Holland.
Rating: Hmmm. The first half was just so-so--maybe Madeira cake. It's episodic and travelogue-y and all we know is that he and she have taken an instant and inexplicable dislike for one another. It coasts that way for quite a while. The second bit (after some dawning realizations) is much more to my taste--a boeuf en croute. He spends a lot of time plotting and planning which is cuter than a bug's ear. And all their havering over wardrobe deficiencies was so much fun. Splitting the difference makes for a respectable treacle tart.
Fashion: Mom recommends she wear severe suits with padded shoulders (like on TV!), a promising sounding smoky blue dress, The Coat--brown cashmere, little sister's made-over pinafore dress, mother's lace jabot, and some tight high-heeled sandals.
Food: Macaroni and cheese, like, four times!! Luscombe might be a treasure but he's limited to cutting sandwiches and pumping out that mac and cheese (or Kraft dinner as Canadian Bare Naked Ladies might say). uitsmijter, currant bread, boterkoek, toffee pudding, pancakes filled with crisp bacon (mmmmmm...bacon), tomato and orange soup (hmm), duck with game chips (jerkey?), toasted cheese, echte soup and balls of forcemeat (hotdogs?).