Thursday, April 8, 2010

Last April Fair - 1980

Thirty years ago this week (April 1980), Dr. van der Stevejinck and I became engaged. I truly didn't notice the coincidence until I started typing this review. How very serendipitous.

Yet another reason to love this book (well, at least parts of it).
Phyllida (aka Phylly) Cresswell is a 26 year old nurse. Tall, slim, pretty with shortish blonde hair and a fringe (that's 'bangs' to you and me), in other words, an Outlier. She has been dating the boring Philip (really? Phil and Phylly?) for some time now. After a grueling day on the ward Philip takes Phyllida out for Chinese. Chinese food, as we all know, is the death knell of any relationship in Neeldom. Phylly knows that Phil is not the guy for her, so she turns down his lukewarm proposal. "...I've given the matter a great deal of thought lately and I'm sure you're the wife for me; we know each other very well by now and I'm more than half in love with you." Ummm...half? She rates half his love? Phylly is right to turn down such a tepid Romeo. Phil acts a bit like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and refuses to believe that "no" means "no". He tells Phylly that he will wear her down until she accepts him. Phyllida's mum tells her that it's a good thing she didn't say yes, because Phil was not the right sort for her. "What is my sort..." she asks. Her mother replies, "Well, he doesn't have to be handsome, but eye-catching, if you know what I mean, the sort of man who would take command in a sticky situation and know just what to do - and not let you have your own way unless he thought it was good for you...a man who would never take you for granted; take great care of you without you ever knowing it..." Do I detect a bit of foreshadowing?

Act I: Wherein Phyllida chucks her nursing job and goes on a cruise.
Dr. Cresswell, Phyllida's dad, gives her a call at the hospital and tells her of an upcoming job. She would be taking care of a terminally ill 18 year-old who has (let's get out the medical dictionary here) erythroblastic leukaemia. Even though Gaby de Wolff is quite ill, her parents swear that she's dying (ironic) to go on a, let's haul anchor and head off to the briny deep. Mr. de Swine in Wolff's Clothing vows that he will send all the medical records to the ship's doctor....but then doesn't. All Phylly has to work with is some case notes. Once on board ship Phylly heads down to sick-bay and has a chat with...the doctor. No, sorry, this is not THE doctor...yes, we're already to page 38 and we have not met him yet. Tardy, tardy doctor. Gaby starts having some pretty bad headaches and being sick. The ship's doctor advises Phylly that Gaby should be near a hospital - there is one in Madeira, their next stop. Mr. and Mrs. de Swine arrange rooms for the girls at a hotel - but they aren't planning on staying. No, even though their daughter is on the brink of death, they plan to continue the cruise and pick Gaby and Phylly up when the ship comes back in a few days. Things go okay for a couple of days until Gaby suddenly goes into a coma.
Act II: Wherein we FINALLY get to meet the hero and have some fun.
(enter RDD - Rich Dutch Doctor) Remember when Phylly's mom told her that she needed someone who would take command in a sticky situation and know just what to do? Well, that's exactly what Dr. Pieter van Sittardt does. Mind you, this is page 53 in my edition and we're just getting around to introductions? They get Gaby to the hospital, where she dies. SHE DIES? Yes, but never mind that, our story is about Phylly and Pieter. Gaby's parents fly in the next day and try to accuse Phylly of neglect - but Dr. van Sittardt sets them straight. They are not overcome with grief, after all " isn't as though she were our own daughter. We adopted her when she was a baby..." (stay tuned for this subject in the discussion thread!) Phylly is more grief-stricken than Gaby's adoptive parents. As one last act of pettishness on their part they sneak off the island and leave Phylly stranded with very little money. Pieter comes to the rescue again and offers Phylly a place to stay until the next ship comes by. No worries, it's with a married couple with whom he is staying. The next section is quite a departure for La Neels. Pieter and Phyllida spend a week together (usually with his friends) doing the kinds of things normal people do on vacation. They go out to dinner, go dancing, swimming, drives in the countryside...they even take a toboggan ride down the cobbled streets. When her ship arrives, Pieter travels back to England with her - in the cabin right next door. The two are quite friendly - although Phylly is a little unsure at first if he really wants her around. Pieter sets her straight, "...Get this clear, love, I'm a shy man, I don't know a soul on board and I intend to cling to you like a limpet...During waking hours, of course." Pieter and Phyllida spend their days swimming, playing deck games, lounging in the sun and playing table tennis. Idyllic except that Phylly is a little jealous of a stunning blonde. Personally I don't think there's any real competition. The dishy blonde is described thus: "...She had piled-up hair, dressed in a careless riot of curls and crowned with a tiny cap sporting a curling feather which curved round one cheek..." I have a hard time getting my imagination around that one. Phyllida sees Pieter talking to The Bombshell - with said bombshell standing in a beguiling attitude calculated to show her figure off to the best possible advantage. To pay him back, she flirts mildly with a man called/described as "Pebble Glasses". I think this is manifestly unfair - the doctor is chatting up a ravishing blonde and the best Phylly can do is Pebble Glasses? Unfair.
The cruise ends at Millwall Dock which is surprisingly close to London. Pieter proceeds to drive Phyllida home to Shaftesbury and manages to get invited to spend a couple of days. Phyllida's family all like Pieter immensely and they conspire to hatch a nefarious plot. Phylly senses a trap...but she can't help getting caught in it. Phyllida, Mrs. Cresswell and Willy (youngest son of the Cresswells) are all to go to Holland and have a jolly holiday for two weeks. Which brings us to:
Act III: Wherein Phylly goes to Holland and meets the Obligatory "Other Woman".
The party crosses The Channel on the Hovercraft and land at Calais. They are met in France by Pieter's "man" who has graciously driven Pieter's car down to meet them. Surprisingly, the car is practically vintage. Pieter says he's had it for 15 years. Assuming it was new when he got it, he would be driving a 1965 Bentley. A rather fine looking car, in my opinion. Phylly is rather dismayed at how grand Pieter's house is. It's beautiful, but evidently it bespeaks wealth. He goes out of his way to make the Cresswells feel comfortable - taking Willy fishing, talking flowers with Mrs. Cresswell, and holding hands and kissing Phylly. His parents come over for dinner (they have retired to a home near a golf course) and all is well. Or is it? Mevrouw van Sittardt asks Phylly whether or not she has met Marena the Evil Artist? This is where it all seems to go pear-shaped. Marena is only 19 years old..but she is old in the ways of the world. I had a tough time with how much Pieter let her hang all over him - it's one thing to be friendly, but this was over and above. I don't blame Phyllida for her confusion. Young Willy steals the yacht and Phylly has to swim out to help him - both are saved by Pieter - who is pretty magnanimous about the whole thing...Pieter and Phyllida do start to make some progress in their relationship (in spite of the spiteful Marena) and Pieter seems to be on the verge of proposing when. . .Aap the Butler announces "A gentleman to see Miss Cresswell." "But I don't know any gentlemen" she replies. Who could it be? Boring Philip drops in out of nowhere. He's come to take Phylly back so they can get married. No Way, No How, is Phyllida's reaction - but of course Pieter happens to walk in on Philip hugging her (clumsily, natch). Philip is invited to dinner where he meets Marena - who invites him over to see her paintings. "Phyllida stifled a giggle. Marena must have heard that one about men asking girls up to see their etchings..." Philip kisses Phyllida one last time - of course Pieter sees it - there is confusion all around. Pieter thinks there is something going on with Philip and Phyllida. Phyllida thinks there is something going on with Pieter and Marena...(and that is quite enough with names starting with "P"!!)Phyllida indulges in some crying and has to resort to wearing dark glasses to hide her red, puffy eyes. And now it's time to go home. As Pieter is leaving, he kisses Phylly on the cheek and then quotes a snippet of poetry by John Clare:

Last April fair, when I got bold with beer,—
I loved her long before, but had a fear
To speak

Pieter leaves...Phylly finally gets it! She gallops out of the house so as to try and catch him before he goes... "'s you and me Pieter. Pieter darling!" Evidently he found that satisfactory; "My own dear darling, you've got it right at last...I love you." They didn't notice when the milkman stopped his float alongside the Bentley; they didn't notice as he squeezed past them, nor did they hear his cheerful good morning... Curtain.

Food: watercress soup, mushroom omelette, pork chops, frozen peas, chips, bifes de atum, sweet potatoes in fritters, caramel flan, Pimms (with not too much gin), scones, honey and hazelnut bavarois, caviar, poached salmon, chicken cooked in cream and Madeira.
Fashion: jersey suit with a silk blouse, new bikini, 3 cotton dresses - sleeveless and light as air, pink crepe evening dress, white organza evening dress, Indian cotton sun-dress that tied at the shoulder, tunic slashed to the waist with tight velvet pants under (worn by Artsy Girl).
Rating:Why do I seem to get all the tough ones to rate? The first 49 pages were just okay - it's all about Phyllida, Philip and La Familia de Wolff. No mention of the doctor until page 49, but then I really loved the book. The next 50 pages or so were quite good - and lots of fun. Loved it. I didn't love the last 80 pages that was a bit of a slog. Marena the Evil Artist didn't make any sense to me - if we assume RDD was 39 years old (standard RDD age), he was 20 years older than her - sure he wasn't romantically attracted (I guess), but why let her mess up a promising relationship? And then there was Philip showing up - I found that pretty random. Philip didn't seem the type to spend money needlessly - and it would have cost him more than a few gulden for his little trip. Okay, here goes: Prologue - treacle tart, Act I - boeuf en croute, Act II - Lashings of Whipped Cream, Act III - beans on toast. After totting up my sums, I end up with almost (but not quite) mince pies.


  1. Betty Marge in MN--I just read this book for the first time. I think Gaby's parents are total narcissists. I agreed with your breakdown of the book. Loved the touring in Madeira. Pieter probably watched Marena grow up and had an avuncular attitude towards her.

  2. I don't have a reason, but I have never warmed to this one. I think the fringe keeps intruding!!!