Monday, May 17, 2010

The Quiet Professor--1992

Megan Rodner is 28 has been engaged for six months to Oscar Fielding and if, right about now, you're thinking to yourself, "Hm. Oscar. That's such a unique and creative name for a doctor. I'll bet he's interesting," you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. Wronger than wrong. In the words of Megan's right hand, Oscar is 'a stuffed shirt'. But she had had her twenty-eighth birthday a day or two before that and since he seemed devoted to her and she liked him very much, indeed was half in love with him, she had agreed to become engaged.
Editorial Note:
It is difficult to travel this novel-ish road with Megan for the next 180 pages when she had such a flimsy reason to attach herself to the wrong man in the first place. If you think of her as having a very long birthday bender, and agreeing to marry him as a result of a muddled hangover, this all might make more sense. Indeed, I can think of nothing that would make a girl sober faster than becoming engaged to Oscar.
One day, a silly nurse drops a specimen destined for the path lab. (For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe, the horse was lost...) Such a small thing to get the ball rolling. It is Megan who girds up her silver buckle and braves the ogre's den. Professor Baron Jake van Belfeld looks up from his desk and, if he is to believed later, falls promptly in love. It isn't the first time they've seen each other so I think that he rather likes that she's shielding a student nurse from his unholy wrath. What a pity she's engaged...
Megan dresses that night for her first visit with Oscar's people. Oscar isn't a big fan of her expensive Italian shoe habit so it'll have to be the understated pumps. Oscar's mother and father (who probably call each other Mother and Father when they're covered in flannel and falling asleep) spend a few days in the big city every year, splashing out on a modest hotel, a concert, set menus and lots of time with their boy--all enough to place them in villain class. And have I mentioned Mrs. Fielding's 'economical clothes and fearsome hairdo'? Mother Fielding takes one sour look at Megan and reads some prepared remarks on the evils of career women. It does not go well.
If only Oscar could marry someone quiet and shy and willing to take second place (no third!) to his mother and his work... (I believe this is how foreshadowing is done, ladies.)
The next time they get together it is to travel all the way to Buckinghamshire (less than 100 miles!) for the first time in 6 months to meet her parents. It goes very well. Why, even meek little Melanie, her shy, quiet sister, willing to take second pla...(Hey look, there's that foreshadowing!) blossoms like a self-effacing rose when he's around. Good thing, thinks big sis, wiping her brow. We can't have Melanie upset for a fraction of a minute.
Oscar just loves Mel...erm...Buckinghamshire. Buckinghamshire is 'like a shy little're not a bit alike'. And if that backhanded remark isn't enough, Oscar goes on to rhapsodize about Buckinghamshire's cooking skills. Buckinghamshire makes the best scones.
But they were Megan's scones actually and she's got a rather light hand with pastry too but Oscar hasn't bothered to find out. In a bit of pique, she invites Oscar over for dinner in her brand new bed-sit. She'll knock him for six with her homemade onion soup.
Editorial Note:
This is really the saddest part of all. Megan is a fantastic homemaker/contriver--making her bed-sit attractive and cozy and working miracles with her cramped kitchenette--but just because she's a professional butt-kicker Oscar is uninterested in moving her from her tiny, cramped 'Nurse' pigeon hole. (Twwwwwwpppppttt. Cue the Helen Reddy music and put up your dukes pretty-boy.)
Of course Oscar cancels. He's only missing beans on toast, right? So there she is in her nice dress, with the homemade onion soup cooling on the stove and the lamb chops and baked custard...and the whole success of her future marriage resting on Oscar's finding her cooking as good as Buckinghamshire's. Tears!
A knock on the door brings the professor (we don't learn his Christian name until page 136).
Your cat was knocked over. Nice place you have here. What tears? I don't see any tears. Something smells good. Oh the prat canceled? Would I do instead?
Would you do? Honey, you're trading me a Rolls Royce for my rusty Morris. Will you do?
A lovely dinner is shared and he compliments her properly on her cooking. When Oscar comes to dinner several days and a few cold shoulders later he also compliments her on her cooking. "Did Buckinghamshire teach you?" Oh no, he didn't.
Megan is unable to make it home to Buckinghamshire in another weekend. No problems though. Oscar just goes without her.
Here, Oscar has crossed the Rubicon. He was flirting with disaster when sampling's cooking. He was teetering on the brink when sauntering off for early morning strolls to...ahem...birdwatch with Buckinghamshire. But traveling into the heart of Buckinghamshire, without his fiancee'? He has crossed a line.
Slaving away in London, Megan suffers from a brain cloud. Something is pricking at her consciousness and she can't quite grab at it.
The professor is content to wait and spar lightly with Megan. He might be The All-Seeing-Eye but she isn't--until, one night she twigs to it. Eureka! The Prat and the Simp! They're perfect for each other.
Megan is just sick about it. The professor waylays her in a corridor and bucks her up in a semi-painful but effective way. He meets her for dinner, offers himself as her father confessor (Thornbirds!) and gives good advice. Sit and stew a bit, find out if Melanie the Back-stabber is really in love and be prepared to take her sloppy seconds if she isn't. Okay, maybe that's not a direct quote.
Melanie really is in love. Oscar is the gutter crutch to her broken tib. He is the humpback whale to her barnacle. He is the brick wall to her clinging vine.
Right. So, there's only one thing to do. Megan whisks back to London, dons a ego-boosting outfit and meets a shame-faced Oscar for the Big Break-Up which goes something like this:
Megan: I know you really love Buckinghamshire. So, here's my ring back.
Oscar: Whew. I really dodged a bullet, didn't I? When I talked to Buckinghamshire...erm... Melanie we agreed to get married really soon--not like how I was going to make you wait forever and waste your youth and then make you live with my mother (which you loathed the idea of) while I worked to establish myself in London (which you also hated). No, we'll get married right off and I'll take a country practice...Your dream come true. All for Melanie. Do you know of a caterer I could use?
Megan: You talked to Melanie about this already? Before we broke it off? Okay...Well, I wish the best for you.
Oscar: Didn't you love me at all?...We should get together again so you can hear me praise Melanie's obvious perfections, sis.
Allow me a minute to fulminate about Oscar and sweet, shy Melanie. I was willing to believe they were not horrible people right up until he said they'd clandestinely made semi-firm wedding plans behind her back.
When Megan makes her lonely way back to her bed-sit she sees the Rolls. The professor, privy to the off-duty rota and guessing that tonight would be particularly difficult, is taking her out to dinner. Because he isn't a hypocrite, he also plans to order champagne. But he braces her up with typically hearty condolence. ...stop crying...Did you howl?...Had you thought? Until this evening there were three unhappy people, but now there is only one...I'm hungry.
And I just love Megan for seeing the sense of all this and not tossing her cat at him. She's willing to believe that he's got her interest at heart and will take some gentle chafing if it helps keep her emotionally together.
More Editorializing:
I appreciate that Megan doesn't let herself succumb to the sullens too frequently but she has good reason to complain and if she won't, I will. Melanie is 'bubbling over' with happiness and has the bad taste to do it out loud on the phone. Oscar wants to meet and be boring on the subject of her better sister. The hospital grapevine offers snide comfort and gossip. She can't go home for comfort because it might make her sister feel the least little bit bad (and we can't have Melanie feel bad for three seconds, now can we?). She can't show her parents the depth of her hurt and humiliation for the same reasons. Yes, Megan got herself into it by engaging a man she wasn't really in love with but there's no denying that Melanie is cruelly clueless and Oscar is no better. I give the professor a lot of latitude here because at least he is completely blameless.
Because all of this public bravery (in the interests of good taste, I am not posting a picture of Jenny Sanford, Silda Spitzer, Elin Woods, etc., etc.) is making her look less than stellar, the professor, Mother and Melanie (who you will not be able to convince me is acting in a selfless manner) tell her she ought to quit her job and go away. So, goaded into it, she agrees to go with the professor to nurse temporarily at an orphanage. Holland will be just the tonic she needs.
The professor tries very hard to present a cool, disinterested demeanor buy betrays himself when he tells her that he can make the way smooth for leaving the hospital. There is no reason for you to give reasons for leaving...I do not wish you to be hurt anymore; you have had enough. See, he's not having much of a courtship either and all this bucking up and avuncular casualness is fraying the poor man's nerves too.
The Holland Interlude
In Holland, Megan swiftly finds out that Jake has a first name (it's Jake!), he's not married (even though he let her think he was for 120 pages), he's a baron (nice gig if you can get it), and (drumroll please) that she loves him!
Holland has lots of orphans (even one little girl found in a grocery sack) and, more importantly, is the safe 'away' place that Megan needs to come to terms with Melanie and Oscar. A young Dr. Timuss is a brief, ever so brief distraction that fizzles almost immediately. And then, on the next to last day in the country, Megan, while holding a baby, tells Jake she loves him. ' wasn't until you brought me here and left me without saying anything that I discovered that it was you...I watched the back of you walking away and I felt--I don't think there's a word,'....Jantje's face crimson[ed] with effort. 'Oh the lamb, he needs a changing.'
Do you not just love this woman?! She's going to shoot straight from the hip, going to be as honest as possible and knows when to change a baby. He'll have married a treasure.
Jake drives her off to his house the following day instead of taking her to England. It's an abduction of the nicest kind.
The End

Hmmm. Not one of my favorites but it has its moments. Melanie was the real drag on the production. She's like cement boots (ala Jimmy Hoffa) dragging us down to a watery grave. She's not really someone I can even enjoy disliking. I could buy that she was a proper wife for Oscar. I could buy that she had a deep connection to Megan. I could not sustain the cognitive dissonance of both. Any woman humorless enough to get along with Mrs. Fielding is no soul-sister of Megan's. Also, I hate that she'll be over the moon about Megan's engagement in part because she won't have to feel guilty anymore. Ugh. I shall comfort myself with the thought of her slowly turning into a pale shadow of Mrs. Fielding for the duration of her married life.
The Quiet Professor, instead of being an episodic travelogue, is practically an Epicure's Guide to England. Not bad (in fact, some of it I love) but a little heavy handed. Still, the heroine is fair-minded, selfless, disciplined...and if declaring one's love in the midst of a childish bowel movement doesn't bespeak aplomb, I don't know what does. It's a mince pie that deserves more if not for the dead weight of Oscar and Melanie.

Food: Boy, does she list every meal they had. This is some, not all: Megan makes homemade onion soup, baked custard, lamb chops and cheese scones for that fink who thinks she only knows how to open a tin of beans, lobster mousse (independent of one another those words are entirely inoffensive), salade Nicoise, cold vichyssoie soup, raised pork pie (please, Betty Debbie), jellied chicken (?), creme fraiche, apple pie and cream, steak and kidney pudding, braised chicory and saute' potatoes, toasted cheese, roast duck with oranges and Curacao, smoked eel on buttered toast, ham salad, pommes frites, ice cream, strawberry tarts and cold lettuce soup (ew.)

Fashion: azure blue crepe de Chine, an often-employed little grey jacket and long pleated skirt (for traveling! in pleats! long ones!), green taffeta skirt and crepe blouse, a honey shirtwaister, a sweet little breaking-it-off-with-my-fiance' outfit of black and white checked wool skirt (hounds-tooth? pretty please.), a scarlet sweater (see what you're missing bub?) and a black cord jacket