Thursday, May 13, 2010

Heaven Around the Corner - 1981

Heaven Around the Corner may have a forgettable title, but as a story, it's very memorable. This is one that I do pick up and reread...after reading it this week, I had to ask myself, why? Why do I reread this one? The love story is a bit fact, for most of the book it's a no-show. The heroine is fine, but she spends 99% of the book taking care of an alcoholic. That doesn't leave a lot of interaction time with the hero who is , for all intents and purposes, a misogynist. So why reread? Two words. Engineering and scenery.

Louisa Evans, (22 year old Araminta) you've just been put on the State Register! What are you going to do now? Disneyworld? No, Norway!! Louisa wants to get away from an interfering step-mother and the persist, self-important, short, plump, Frank. Frank who keeps proposing, and she keeps turning down, with depressing regularity. As soon as she's an "official" nurse, she quits her job at the hospital (a mid-Victorian monstrosity, natch). Feel free to forget about step-mama and Frank - they are now banished to shadow status.
Louisa has an interview with a woman who needs a nurse/companion to go with her to Norway. The lovely Miss Savage is thrilled to find such a young, inexperienced nurse. Louisa might just as well have fallen right off the turnip lorry. What is Miss Savage's medical condition? Never you mind your not quite pretty little head about it. Let's just call it "indigestion"...or "a liver complaint"...or something else equally vague, because that's all the info our brand new trained nurse will get. Louisa will need some new uniforms...where does Miss Savage send her? Harrods. (Query: Did Harrod's have a uniform department in 1980?).
Before leaving England, Louisa has a chat with Miss Savage's doctor...who continues with the vague, nebulous info. And no, you won't be seeing the notes on the case. Hmmm....sounds a bit fishy.
And now we're off to Bergen, along with 3 rowdy friends of Miss Savage's...Connie, Willie and Steve (I object!). Much loud laughter ensues in the first class compartment while the friends down gin and tonics in flight.
The flat in Bergen is nice (if you happen to like "modern Scandinavian style") - and comes complete with a cook/housekeeper named Eva who has to work the gosh-awful hours of 8am to 7pm each day - with 2 hours off in the afternoons. Enough about her...I just feel bad that she has such awful working hours...but as she is practically a non-entity we won't dwell on it.
After her swilling friends leave, Miss Savage (I'm going to just call her Claudia now), throws her first tantrum...her first of many. To save time and space, just assume that any time Louisa is around Claudia that a fit is being thrown. Claudia's mood swings are the stuff of legend. Cheerful one minute, ranting the next. Louisa handles her quite nicely - especially considering the fact that she hasn't a clue what the REAL problem is. She has met with the local doctor who is now in charge of Claudia and hasn't been told anything beyond "Unhappily there are many such [cases] these days and you will understand that there is not a great deal to be done." Um, could you be a little more explicit?
Claudia's brother rings up and wants to chat with her...but Louisa fobs him off with a cool "she's resting." Louisa's first impression of him is that he is just about the nastiest type she's ever encountered. Worse than than the self-important Frank. One nice thing about Claudia, is that she is generous with the time off she allows Louisa (it's much easier to swill potent potables if the nurse isn't around...). Louisa gets to see the sights around Bergen more than any other Neels heroine. One of the first things she does is to buy a ticket and take a ride up the funicular. Louisa rides calmly up without any large RDD to cling to. Doesn't need one. Louisa has a good head for heights. What?? A heroine who can handle heights? Unheard of! Yep, it's all there in black and white. Too bad for her that when she gets back to the flat she finds Louisa in the middle of a fight with a strange man who is in a towering rage. Towering rage. Check. That must mean our hero has finally arrived. Simon Savage, the Uncivil Engineer (I know, I know, he sounds like a character in a particularly bad soap opera - makes me almost wish for something Dutch and unpronounceable) is not happy with his step-sister. He asks Louisa if she knows what Claudia's "problem" is. Louisa gives him all the vague mediciny terms that she has at her disposal; "blocked bile duct", "dyspepsia", and "a kind of severe indigestion" are bandied about. Editor's Note: La Neels never seems quite sure what to do with Simon. It's pretty plain that she didn't know too many engineers, civil or otherwise. Having spent 30 years with Dr. van der Stevejinck (who, in spite of the fictitious title, is an actual engineer), I know me some engineers. I've never met one who was remotely like Simon Savage. I find it surprising that even when Simon realizes that Nurse Evans doesn't know Claudia is an alcoholic, he doesn't tell her either. It makes one start to believe in conspiracy theories....
Simon heads back to Tromsø, and while the cat's away, Claudia's friends (remember Willie, Connie and Steve??) pay a visit. Simon isn't there to shoo them off, so he asks Louisa to tag along with the group. Awkward. But she does it. Hints as to Claudia's condition are dropped pretty fast and thick, but Louisa is still clueless...until Simon comes to visit again and they walk in on Louisa passed out next to a half empty bottle of vodka. Okay, NOW we'll tell Louisa that Claudia has a drinking problem. "Why wasn't I told?" Why indeed.
Enter Lars Helgesen, bank employee. Or manager. Or something to do with a bank. Whatev...that's who Louisa has to see to get her wages - and to pick up Claudia's money. He's a nice guy, she's a nice girl....wanna go on a date? Sure, I just need to get a babysitter for my patient. It's lovely that Louisa finally gets someone nice to talk to (Claudia and Simon don't count, they aren't nice...yet), but when Lars comes to fetch Louisa all he has to do is clap his eyes on the Claudia, who manages to be glamorous even though "addicted to the bottle", and he's smitten. From there on out there's no possibility of romance with the almost, but not quite, pretty Louisa. Louisa lets her vague idea of Lars being interested in her slide into oblivion. Oh well, easy come, easy go. Lars is actually something of a godsend for Claudia - and Louisa is quick to see that. If Lars is the medicine that Claudia needs, Louisa is going to do all she can to make sure he gets his chance to work. And work he does. Lars is the miracle that Claudia needed - she is nearly instantly cured. But nevermind that Claudia is cured, Simon Says come to Tromsø, so to Tromsø they must go. Instead of a quick flight, Claudia and Louisa are booked aboard the Coastal Steamer. They girls get to share a stateroom, which Louisa finds perfect. Claudia takes one look at it and contemplates mutiny. The only other English speaking people on the boat are Mr. and Mrs. Foster Kuntz, from San Antonio Texas... they might be nice, but they're also rich and garrulous, so Claudia shuns them like the plague. In spite of the mutinous Claudia, Louisa does slip off to view the scenery from time to time...which is undoubtedly splendid, what with it being Norway and all. Simon meets them in Tromsø and asks Louisa to dinner (the bone-idle Claudia has room service). Social chit chat only goes so far at dinner - then Simon starts questioning Louisa. Again, he's an engineer, not a RDD...and it shows. He only gets so far before Louisa outflanks him with, I'm not going to answer any more questions...let's talk about bridges. Louisa is surprised to find that she isn't intimidated by Simon any more - she does still dislike him, though. The feeling may or may not be mutual...on the boat ride to the fjord the very next day, a quick kiss is given to an apple cheeked Louisa. What? What was that? A quick kiss? Nevermind, just ignore it. It will not be referred to again.

Tromsø temporary housing (okay, technically not Tromsø...the bridge is being built about 15 miles away - this will be important later on...) is actually quite roomy. I'm not sure why Simon the Uncivil needed a 3 bedroom 1 bath cottage before, but it's going to come in handy now. Louisa is impressed (she is rather easily impressed, see coastal steamer stateroom), but not surprisingly Claudia is not. "What a dump! ...It's ghastly - we can't all use that poky little bathroom.." Editor: I do feel for the girl...sharing a bathroom with anyone besides a spouse is not fun - but it can be done. I remember when Betty Marcy came to stay with us for a couple of months...between us we had 7 kids, plus the two of us, plus Dr. van der Stevejinck. Did I mention that we were BOTH pregnant? Yeah, lots of people can share one bathroom But it isn't fun.

Life on the fjord is trying for Claudia...which means it's trying for everybody. Louisa comes up with a plan to have Claudia teach her to ski. There. that's one little bit of excitement. Watching Louisa fall down repeatedly has got to be a barrel of laughs - she eventually gets to be somewhat adequate. Another bit of excitement is the Saturday Night Community Cinema and Dance!! Seems that people from miles around come to paint the town red. Even Lars will be there, thus single-handedly guaranteeing Claudia's good mood. Louisa isn't too excited at the prospect. "...she would be forced to drop inane remarks over the high wall of Simon Savage's indifference." (thank you, Betty) After dinner (soup and cod) the chairs are lined up for folks to watch The Sound of Music. Louisa watches it all misty-eyed, Simon watches Louisa. Hmmm. I'm thinking Louisa might be misty-eyed from having to sit on a folding chair for three hours. I would be - an hour's about my limit. These Norwegians pack a lot of activity in one evening...after the movie it's time to dance. No staid waltzes or foxtrots here. Nope, the tape player is cranked up and out come the soothing sounds of....wait for it....wait for it.....ABBA! Editor: I totally cracked up when I read that. I still listen to ABBA...frequently. I know all the wrong words to Waterloo, Fernando and Mamma fact, when Betty Keira and I take a road trip in a couple of weeks, you can be sure we'll be belting out a little ABBA on the long boring stretches of freeway - thus proving that music can span the ages. Betty Neels would have been in her mid to late 60's when she first heard them, I was a teenager, and Betty Keira was born during their heyday...alright already, let's get back to the show...Simon dances the evening away with Louisa, going far beyond the simple bounds of duty and courtesy. Hmmm....Just as Louisa is falling off to sleep that night, Simon taps on the door and enters her bedroom. Huh? Oh, there's an emergency medical situation and we need you back at the Community Center. Three men fell in the fjord. Louisa dons her super-hero outfit and proceeds to use her awesome ninja nursing skills. Pulses are taken, clothes removed, false teeth extracted and fractured leg splinted. The men will need further medical attention, but for that they'll have to take the launch to Tromsø. Not an appealing trip in the cold and dark. Coffee spiked with Aqua Vitae (which I always read as Aqua Velva) is handed round before heading out to sea...more coffee liberally spiked is handed to Louisa for the return trip. I sort of have a problem with this....Simon Savage has been dealing with the Alcoholic Claudia for EIGHT YEARS and now he's liquoring up Louisa? Uh-uh. No. Don't go there. Evidently a Louisa swimming in spirits is attractive to the uncivil engineer, because it earns her Kiss #2. Methinks our heroine is starting to soften a bit on the subject of Simon. A few pages later Louisa is stuck having dinner alone (Claudia is out with Lars - and Simon is MIA)...Not knowing where Simon is, she first assumes his boat turned over...but we can tell she's not in love yet, because she doesn't dwell on that morbid possibility for too long - nope, she starts imagining slap-up dinners with stunning Norwegian beauties. Back in the old days (pre-cell phone), whenever Dr. van der Stevejinck was late coming home, I would assume he was dead in a ditch and mentally start spending the insurance money.

It's time for Lars to fly back to his bank in Bergen, which means that Claudia's good moods are over (he may have cured her tendency to tip the bottle, but her foul disposition is always waiting in the wings - I predict a relapse for her, and the bottle for him within 6 months of getting hitched). Simon is not amused by her tantrums, and he's getting ready to have it out with her, but fierce little Louisa steps in and shoos him down the stairs, tells him he doesn't understand women and please go back to your dang bridge building.

The book is getting distressingly short on pages, and we still haven't been treated to a Dawning Realization by either parties. Yes, we got one each from Claudia and Lars, but you don't seriously believe I'm going to count those? Simon now tries to be a Civil Engineer...he asks Louisa to call him Simon instead of Mr. Savage (like a mid-Victorian ogre)...she's just not ready to, that is, until he gives her notice. Once Louisa realizes that she will never see Mr. Savage again, it's Dawning Realization time! Louisa's got her eyes wide open and realizes quite well that she's fallen for someone who is "...ill-tempered, brusque, impatient and intolerant..." A quick rescue involving skiing, string, torches and coffee (not laced with Aqua Velva, I mean Vitae)...Kiss #3 (wherein she kisses him back)..and now Mr. Savage turns into Simon at last.

On page 214 (out of 217 1/2)he finally declares his love for her in an absolutely fabulous way ending with, "....I've discovered that I can't face life without you, indeed I doubt if I could build another bridge..." All I can say to that is, wow (wow, and boy did we deserve a great declaration of love, because it was hard earned). They now fly back to England together, where he has a Daimler Sovereign and a house in the country that they can be married from. The end.

Rating: I'm giving this one a good solid boeuf en croute, with a tiny dollop of queen of puddings on the side. Surprised? Yeah, I was too. I have to admit, I am a sucker for an engineer, civil or not. For the most part I liked Louisa. She was tenacious in caring for her unlikeable patient (if I ever need a nurse, I would like someone like Louisa) and she wasn't soppy about her circumstances. Claudia was thoroughly unpleasant, but Betty stuck with her until the bitter end. Simon was fun to watch, although you really had to watch closely, because he didn't drop a lot of hints - and he does redeem himself pretty well with his stellar proposal.

Fashion: sage green silk jersey, dark blue nurses uniforms from Harrod's, green quilted jacket with fleecy lining, thick wool sweaters galore, waterproof poplin outfit, long skirt with quilted waistcoat.
Food: Lots and lots of porridge, lots and lots of fish - especially cod, lots and lots of soup, crisp little potatoes, a sea of vegetables, ice cream heaped with honey (???), fudge and lashings of whipped cream, cranberry jam, cranberry tart, coffee spiked with Aqua Vitae.


  1. Oh my. I have found a new home on the Internet. I've loved Betty Neels for years - since I was young stay-at-home mom. (I'm now an old stay-at-home grandma who talks to her grandbabies as often as possible via her webcam and Skype) and I love that you love Betty the way I do. :)

    me<>< (Aka Cindy, aka Silly...'Ma (my older grandson's first name for me although he says, at nearly 3, and adorable "Gwandma" now. )

  2. Yay! Another Grandma! We love to make new friends here at TUJD.

  3. Okay, despite my reaction (not good) to the hash The Great Betty makes of a rational treatment of chronic alcoholism, I enjoyed this book.

    I make a minor study of The Canon to decipher clues as to The Great Betty's own life. For example, I'm torn between two explanations for how she ended up with no money: 1)her parents (both) died and she got saddled with some aunts as a young woman or 2) her mother died, her father remarried an Unsuitable Woman who got the fabulous civil service pension when he died and as a result, there was no money for Betty herself when the time came.

    Anyway, this book provides a clue about something I'd been wondering about, namely why did Betty make so many trips to Norway? And not just Norway, but north of the Arctic Circle? You can tell she actually went there a lot, and not just once but wrote about it a lot, because the details of the trips all change. Here, it's late autumn edging into winter -- not a standard time for tourists.

    What I figure is that her daughter, Charlotte, was (is?) married to someone associated with the construction of those bridges. (Maybe Betty's son-in-law wasn't/isn't a civil engineer, but I suspect he was and that all absence of technical details -- including the answer to Louisa's question about how you build a bridge so it doesn't fall down in the middle -- is evidence not of *his* profession, but of Betty's own lack of interest in the subject.)

    So, if you ever reread this book -- not that I'm recommending it, you understand -- read all the local details as being quite accurate about The Great Betty's daughter's life inside the Arctic Circle. Because I'm convinced The Great Betty would have been much happier going again to Portugal! (Warmer, doncha know.)

  4. This was the last book (so I thought at the time) I had to acquire, and I waited quite a while and paid too much for it. It was a disappointment. I felt the subject matter, alcoholism, was poorly dealt with and the romance way too thin. Now that I have another perspective, I'll go back and read it again. Perhaps now that I don't have such high hopes I might enjoy it more.

  5. I'm still snickering at the Aqua Velva quip. :D Great review on a very out-of-the-ordinary (Betty-nary?) book.

  6. Oh my merciful heavens! I thought I was the only wife who mentally spent the insurance money when her husband was late coming home! (And just when you have picked out your vacation cottage in the Cotswolds, there is the sound of his tires on the driveway.)