Since my last review was Waiting For Deborah, (Betty Debbie's first name, sort of) it seems appropriate that this week I'm doing Hannah (The Founding Bettys maiden name, sort of). Historically, it hasn't been my favorite--maybe it's because that palindromic (and unnecessary) 'H' at the end makes me hostile to the title. The extra 'H' is for hairy milkmaids whereas Hanna is a lovely name and needs no addition. But I digress...Short review: Mind changed. I loved it!
Hannah Lang, 24, Staff Nurse of the Prem Ward of St. Egberts, is sick to death of Uncle Valentijn. Her patient's mother, Corinna van Eysink, has been quoting him, chapter and verse for weeks now and Hannah is sick of his thickset, balding, deadly boring perfections. That she has never met the man doesn't impede her deep antipathy one jot. She is sure that the picture she's conjured of a paunchy, middle-aged paedetrician with pebble glasses is spot on. How mortifying then, to have her imagination land so wide of the mark.
Valentijn van Bertes is nearly 40, it is true, but he's a looker. Dang it. And the look in his eye when he meets her--a painful cocktail of amusement, mixed with mockery and a chaser of indifference--has her thinking, better the devil you've conjured then the devil before you.
Hannah (I seriously hate that extra H) spends her off-duty days with her widowed mother in a flat that sports a 'respectable address' and not much else. Yes, they could move to something cheaper and quieter but Mother must have her little refinements. Mother is described variously as selfish, dreadfully lazy, charming, pretty, quite ruthless and (in her own gag-inducing words) 'poor little me'. Her complaints are like rain drowning her daughter. Drip--I can't believe you're so plain--Drop--I'm so tired, you'll have to make dinner--Drip--I'm glad you have no plans to marry--Drop--Have I chased off that pharmacy worker who took a shine to you yet?. But if nothing else, The Weather Event has raised her daughter with a healthy respect for the fifth commandment.
Hannah has plenty of good points though. She has excellent dress sense (thank you Betty) even if not much money to indulge it, is a wonderful nurse, warm-hearted, persevering and is never bored. This last makes her a catch all by itself but it's a quiet quality that you'd have to be paying attention to notice.
Valentijn is not paying attention. He's gotten himself engaged while we had our backs turned--to Nerissa, a woman whose very name sends a delicious chill up my spine. Corinna is not pleased about it. She loves her Oom Valentijn and after his sad marriage and divorce many years previously he deserves better.
Side Note: The former Mevrouw van Bertes is still alive somewhere. This book came out before The Mighty Neels discovered the untapped expediency and drama of a plane crash in the Andes with a South American lover.
Corinna wants to return to Holland and Uncle Valentijn, Smoother of Pathways, Greaser of Skids is there to make it happen. These onerous duties include lavishing Mother with 6 bottles of sherry and supplying her a temporary home help while Hannah comes with them. He also asks her for dinner and complains gently to his niece the next day '...and don't for God's sake let her loose on the claret; my head aches with her chatter!' Gentle Hannah, shy and intimidated in his company, had gotten a little muzzy on the drink but overhearing him give such a scathing review of taking her out makes her furious.
She gets her own back soon after, however. They arrive in Holland to a welcome party and Hannah refuses to drink the toast. Her natural competence asserts itself, 'If claret makes me chatter, the risk of what I might do after a glass of champagne is too great to bear thinking about.' (She shoots, she scores!)
But life at the van Eysink villa is lovely and, even if she is busy feeding little Paul up she has afternoons free to swim or walk or ride. It is on one such day, after skillfully swimming a few lengths, that she becomes aware that she is being watched. (Tell me how this is accomplished underwater?) Uncle Valentijn and the dreaded Nerissa--which is Greek for 'sea sprite' and Dutch for 'sea serpent'--stroll up in their well-bred outfits. Ugh. Meeting the enemy soaking wet?! I protest.
Nerissa doesn't really like children (she'll make a perfect paediatrician's wife), she fusses over her clothes and, though it seems absurd, has taken an instant dislike to insignificant Hannah. Silly, really. The doctor and the nurse don't care for one another.
Or do they?
On Hannah's free day she takes a horse around the countryside and is enjoying her solitary ramble. While stopping for lunch, who does she stumble across but the good doctor. He's come to talk about little Paul and why doesn't he buy her lunch while he's at it. Okay, just to sum up: He drove over, discovered that she was off duty and, instead of calling it a wash, mounts a horse and prepares to devote the bulk of his day (hours and hours) to her.
Her response is to pull out her union contract, show him the fine print and remind him that she's entitled to bank holidays, smoking breaks, full dental coverage and days off without being pestered.
She clearly doesn't know what's happening here. To her he is an attractive man whom she enjoys being impertinent to. He is Uncle Valentijn. At this point, however, he is beginning to understand that she attracts him. He likes her--he doesn't want to and is willing to concede that she's not trying to captivate him at all. But while she blithely goes about her darling and precocious business he's arming himself to defend his fortress.
Then one night she wakes to find little Paul pinched and vomiting. "Intussusception--or I'm a Dutchman." What a smarty-pants. Google is such a comfort at times like this. Intussuception is a problem with the intestine in which one portion of the bowel slides into the next, much like the pieces of a telescope. Ouch.
It's touch and go for a few days but our dedicated nurse straps her starched muslin cap on and pulls little Paul back from the brink. He can't help but admire her so that it irks him when she calls him Uncle Valentijn (to little Paul) or sir.
'I do mind being called "sir" by you, Hannah. Don't do it again.'
'Oh, sorry--we call consultants "sir" in England.'
'So they do here, or the equivalent of it,' and at her look of bewilderment: 'No, don't try and work that one out.'
Let's run that through the Rich Dutch Doctor to Poor Brit Nurse translator:
Nerissa's curves appear inadequate to plug the hole in my heart.
I'm a size 10.
Well, what are we waiting for?
He is unable to admit to any dawning realizations but understands the threat Hannah poses to his peace of mind. To that end he brings Nerissa along with him to the van Eysink villa. But when that fails to help him he attempts the Uncle Valentijn routine--avuncular and concerned and matchmaking. If only she could meet some young man. Then, surely (he thinks desperately to himself), surely, he can lead his life in peace.
Nerissa has just the guy. Enter Henk van der Kampen--he of the straggly mustache. He asks Deborah out and she finally agrees because Nerissa implies that Valentijn wants to prise her from little Paul's side--for Corinna's sake. Well, that puts another complexion on it. She'll go but '...Henk was going to be hard to swallow.'
She has a miserable time. The restaurant is nice but he complains about everything and pesters the waiters. His parting shot is that she is starchy and he'll be dashed if he ever does Nerissa any favors again.
Remember, this is a girl who spends her off duty cooking for Mother and watching tentative romantic interest be crushed in Mother's twittering grasp. It hasn't been fun or ego-boosting and tonight is no exception. Valentijn, anxious about--well, he's just anxious because he didn't really want to send her away with some young man in the first place--is waiting for her. Tears and a muddled cry that tonight, compounded with that time they went out, is ample evidence of her failure as a companion. High time for some of his beastly Dutch oaths--at himself, this time, for thoughtlessly wounding her before. And kissing. Don't forget the kissing.
Hard on the heels of that little spot of snogging comes a solid gold dawning realization. Hers. And for a few days she's in shock. The monstrous suggestion that Valentijn--her Valentijn--would marry that cold fish who, if she has children would only allow them near her for a half hour after tea, sends her deep into the Land of Indiscretion with an emotional tirade on Distant Parenting.
Valentijn, his hands tied by the very engagement he created, has accepted his dawning realization at last--knowing full well that it was his constant companion for weeks before. He is unable to defend Nerissa or comfort Hannah so let's spend a minute and be sad for him.
A little while later, he invites Hannah to tour the hospital. (Okay, fine. That's a nice short activity.) And then he brings her home with him. She's gobsmacked by the opulence and he tells her that she looks 'like a worried little trout'. (Note the endearment. I expect he will still use it in her sweet 70s.)
A common trope to Neelsism is the RDD home tour--which often serves as shorthand for 'Ik hou van jou' (English for: I love you, Poor Brit Nurse.) Hannah has possibly the best example of what the emotional ramifications of this tour are as the hero discusses the loving family circle of his childhood, his present loneliness and hopes for a peaceful and happy future. Failure to show a woman his house is tantamount to indifference (The Hasty Marriage) and Valentijn has shown Hannah nearly every nook and cranny.
'No doubt I seem an elderly fool to you...'
He returns her to the villa and tells her to be ready in one hour. For what? Oh, did he forget to mention? He's taking her out to dinner. And not just any dinner. It's a repeat of the disastrous date with Henk (hate that name) van de Kampen. But of course this time the service, the table, the food, and the dancing are excellent. Lesson learned.
Strangely though, at the end of the night he walks her into the van Eysink's, listens to her thanks and disappears abruptly--which reminds me of that line in That Thing You Do:
Mr. White: We bow, right? In unison, and we're off the stage before the applause dies out.
Jimmy: Well, what if they want an encore?
Mr. White: You unplug and you run, RUN offstage! Smiling, smiling, of course.
Our RDD could sustain an encore but his self-control can't.
Nerissa returns and poisons things and Hannah tells Valentijn, when he tentatively asks, that she DOESN'T want to meet in London for dinner when he comes in two weeks. The look she surprises on his face at the farewell dinner is equal parts of thoughtful, sad and calculating. The Pride of Holland is down but not out.
Soon she's back in London and miserable. Mother wants to keep the hired help and tells Hannah to quit her job and take up private (read: pointless) nursing. There's more money in it, Mother says, but Hannah cannot believe this gaping maw is her parent. She wishes she'd get a job or contribute or move or '...just stop moaning about her lot'. Cathartic, no?
So she does it (because nothing matters now that Valentijn is gone) but is fetched back by Valentijn within weeks. Gastro-enteritis. Little Paul again. And broncho-pneumonia on top of it. The little fellow just can't catch a break. Hannah works like a Trojan to get him well again and in between charts and sleep and feedings she meets Valentijn's aunt--because that's what this book needs to get this couple on the same train--an outspoken old person making personal remarks about her bosom.
Paul is finally pronounced well enough to go home and Hannah can now take a few walks without having to be near. She becomes lost, Valentijn finds her, she tells him she loves him and he...tells her they ought to be getting back. Awkward small talk ensues. Fate may be remarkable but it doesn't open up giant holes and swallow you when you want it to. She is mortified and he assures her that they'll talk when he gets back from Brussells. (Oh, no! Not Belgium!) Nerissa puts her oar in to no good purpose but then (during yet another walk) Valentijn returns to find our soaking heroine. See, he couldn't propose until he'd shaken off the sea serpent for once and for all.
The villagers rejoice.
But what about Mother?
We'll provide a home and money for her. (Which is code for: We'll tie a big rock to her ankles and find the nearest Meer...)
Rating: I loved this--just loved it--which is all very strange since I was so ho-hum about it before. I blame the cover art which makes her look both weirdly plain and as though she has had an unacceptable amount of plastic surgery or laser hair removal. A ton of time gets spent on little Paul's afflictions, treatment and recovery but I didn't mind too much. Hannah, herself, is a force of will, pulling little Paul back from the brink time and again. She is natural and frank and cute as a button. In turn, Valentijn is my favorite kind of hero--arrogant and living to regret it. Queen of Puddings.
Food: Languid mother eats a lot of egg-based dishes-souffles and omlettes and salad. Also, we have artichoke hearts with vinagrette, tournedos Rossini, trifle and lobster Thermidor. When Hannah overindulges on the claret she keeps strictly to non-alchololic beverages for a while--tonic water and lemon and iced orange juice. Ice cream ('she allowed her liking of ice cream to overcome her dignity'). And uitsmijter is defined as 'beef or cheese...on bread and butter, with fried eggs on top' which sounds like my diet for all four years of college.
Fashion: Pleated skirts get a lot of wear which I am deeply suspicious of. No matter that her waist is small--if she's short and curvy then it''s bound to add inches, right? A silk jersey pinky mushroom gown, a leaf green cotton dress and one in pastel voile. Also, short-sleeved blouses and a blazer.