Monday, May 10, 2010

The Silver Thaw--1980

I have long thought of the end of the Carter Administration as The Golden Years of Betty. In the span of two years she produced The Promise of Happiness(1979), Winter Wedding (1979) and Caroline's Waterloo (1980). (How we loves us some Winter Wedding at La Casa van Voorhees.) Still, they're not all winners. In 1980, shortly before her magnum opus to tortured Dutch barons and under-rated Aramintas in Caroline's Waterloo, came The Silver Thaw--with cover art that could scorch your eyelashes off, a vivid title, memorable ought to have been a winner. So, why, when my fingers are dum-diddly-dum-ing along my row of Bettys, do I never pick it up?

Amelia Crosbie is the only child of a well-off father. At 27, she's gorgeous and a little spoiled but she's also a black belt nursing ninja as a Theatre Sister at St. Ansell's. Though Amelia could have been living a life of bubble-headed leisure for the last four years, she instead qualified for her nursing certifications and spent her time productively. Still, she's been slinging around the cat gut and cotton swabs for a long time and she'd like to hang up her scrubs for pastures anew. She's Hot-Lips Hoolihan--kicking butt and taking names and unfortunately attached to a Frank.
Meet her fiance' Tom Crouch. Other than not having to change the monogram on the linen I'm not sure what recommended him to her. He is described as: correct, deliberate, sensible, sound, ', thoughtless', reasonable, patient, and understanding. Oh yes, and he hates Public Displays of Affection, won't marry her until he can afford to keep her very well (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers...), is snippy when she buys new clothes and is so, so (shudder)...worthy...that it makes me want to put grubby fingerprints on his windows and snap off his pencil leads.
Father wants to take a trip to Norway where the fishing is good. Amelia (I *heart* that name.) has got three weeks due and Tom can come for one week. Daddy and Tom don't get on very well but, maybe, she thinks, this would be a good time to convince Tom to bump up the wedding date. (In my head this involves some inappropriately low-cut tops, peep-toe heels and a MacArthur-like determination to win unconditional surrender.)
Not thinking strategically, she packs what amounts to the entire Land's End catalog of thick sweaters and heavy scarves. Thankfully, one hard-working little burgundy number makes it in the suitcase. Is it uncrushable?
They have a lovely (if chilly) few days until meeting Gideon van der Tolck (described as inscrutable, splendid, disconcerting, quiet, frank and bland--that's the hero we've come to know and love!). Tom and Amelia come upon him talking with Father. He gives her a long stare that she doesn't much care for and then the ground seems to shift. Aha! A Dawning Realization!...but not hers. "She...caught Tom's sleeve in a fierce grip which made him glance at her in surprise. Tom was there, right beside her, and she was going to marry him..." If Tom was a portkey, Amelia would be at the Quidditch World Cup by now.
Gideon was just minding his business on a little fishing holiday when the woman of his dreams walked up making mincemeat of his placid existence. Amelia was minding her own business when this giant of a man made Tom look like yesterday's boiled-over potatoes. Tom was minding his business when his fiance subjected him to a little unwanted personal space invasion. Father was thinking about cod.
So, Father and Gideon (getting along famously) go off fishing and Amelia tries to corner Tom about this wasting-her-youth-for-nothing thing. It doesn't quite happen (the Land's End catalog isn't helping) and a thick mist of gloom settles over Norway. Before he leaves for England, he casually mentions Australia. What does she think of it? Worse, he looks around before he kisses her. Ugh. I am mentally wrapping his keyboard in duct tape as we speak.
With Tom out of the way Gideon doesn't make any headway. Amelia is cross or glowers or huffs or avoids him. She's as prickly as a Norwegian coastline. But squeezed between her bad mood are moments of amity. They dance happily together. He thoughtfully affords her the privacy to read Tom's horridly pedestrian letters. He throws a comforting arm around her when she becomes scared of heights.
But, pleasant as they both are, they are (if you'll forgive the detour through seventh grade) like a sine and cosine graph. If they could just get on the same wavelength...
While in Norway, Betty introduces a fist-full of shadowy Americans whose only purpose seems to underscore their unlikeablility. They talk too much and are happy to annex strangers just to hear the sound of their own voices. (In all fairness to Betty, American schools teach classes on How To Be Boorish and Mis-Read Social Cues.)
Father and Gideon cook up a scheme to swing by Gideon's home in Holland for a day or two before Nurse Amelia can get back to London. She doesn't want to. She really doesn't want to. She's in love with Tom. Did you hear that? She said she's in love with Tom!
On the trip back, he asks a wretched American (but I repeat myself) girl to dance. In retaliation Amelia is 'coolly friendly in the morning. It was a pity...there was little opportunity for Gideon to notice it.' I know I should be annoyed by her but I can't be. She's just like me! We've both got our Star Trek phasers set to 'petty'.
Though he enjoyed mucking about on boats and catching cod, it turns out that Gideon is loaded. Lo-oo-oooa-ded. 'Phew,' thinks Amelia, wiping her brow as she marches through his 500-year-old pepperpot-and-everything castle, 'It's a good thing my ancestors pass muster.'
The next morning he invites her for an early morning walk. She nearly falls all over herself in a rush to meet him and is given some lovely compliments, one of which is that he reminds her of 'a silver thaw...Something only to be found in Oregon.'
Dear me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that The Venerable Betty picked up an out-of-date National Geographic featuring a glossy pictorial of a genuine silver Oregon thaw. I have seen such a thaw. It is beautiful and blinding. I'll bet they happen in lots of locales. But 27 years of residency has not been long enough to acquaint me with the term 'silver thaw'. I am desolate that when she mentions my home state it should be in such a indefinite way. I am bemused that she knows it at all. Now, if you want an Oregon-specific meteorological event we can talk 'sun breaks' all day...
But back to our lovers. When Amelia confesses that Tom (I'm putting his stapler in a jell-o mold now.) is in no hurry to rush her down the aisle Gideon proposes...sort of.
Hey, like, you should marry me.
As if!

Dude, I have a seriously chill pad.


She doesn't know if she should take him seriously or not and he is allowing her too much wiggle room to read him anyway she chooses. And then, just when she decides he's laughing at her, he drops this: Ah, now that's a sound argument. I shall be able to look after you and cherish you until my last breath.
"I'm going to marry Tom." (She's adding exclamation points in her head.) Now she's brandishing Tom (replacing his Tic Tacs with Seconal...) like a shield-maiden of Rohan.
Gideon sends her back to England with cryptic farewells. Father is still thinking about cod.
Tom (unscrewing the cap of his salt shaker...) greets her with the news that he's got a brand new job offer! In Australia! The one in the Antipodes! A contract! For five years! On the condition he stays single!
It doesn't take a mathematical genius half a second to do the quickest sums ever. "Tom, in five years I'll be thirty-two!" And really, if you think about it, he's asking the impossible. For instance, if you walked into Cafe Chi-Chi and were told about the 3 hour dinner wait, you might say to yourself, "But the vichyssoise is really, really good and I'm not starving anyway. I'm already here and wearing the right clothes. Put my name on the list." Say then that you face the same wait time at Mac-Burger-o-rama's...for yesterday's boiled-over potatoes...
I think I've made my case. The prosecution rests.
Amelia agrees. "I just can't face five years of theatre and living like a nun..." Hmmm. We've got some implied conjugal yearnings there.
Here Comes The Best Part Of The Book: Wherein Cattiness Erupts and Morning Coats Are Worn
Though her tepid romance has just imploded, Amelia still has to face the world. Cousin Barbara's wedding will be her first hurdle. First off, Cousin Barbara is just the kind of pick-me-up this book has been looking for. She's awful and has terrible taste and Amelia's character flaws show charmingly. Knowing that her broken engagement will be chewed over maliciously by Barbara, she buys a smashing dress for the wedding just to tick off the bride. This kind of cattiness I can get behind.
She meets Gideon's eye across a crowded room (how did he get here?) and has her own shattering realization. Blast. She loves him. What a time to find out! And who is that stunning redhead he's with? (Yet another well-loved American.)
Gideon backs her up to a wall and begins the interrogation about Tom which ought to be the perfect time to tell him that she's a bachelor girl again but...FIBS! Oh, fibs are so much more fun. Fibs are raining down like water. She downs another champagne. With very little provocation, Gideon delivers a Shakespeare-worthy soliloquy on the subject of crafting happiness out of second-rate material. Just when he's as near as necking with her in the corner as makes no difference and wafting her up on a cloud of his vision of shared paradise he pops her balloon. "What nonsense one talks at weddings! Come and meet Fiona..."
Grrrr. It's easy to ascribe all of the blame for their backward love story on the glowering and proud girl but dumb Gideon isn't exactly Mr. Consistency. He seems to be opening the door with one hand and slamming it shut with the other.
But, to sum up: Out-shining the bride, fibs, and getting smashed. For this I love her. It's the haughty crossness I could do without.
The Christmas season is not a very festive time for Nurse Crosbie. Cousin Barbara throws a party where she serves the most awful punch ('like watered-down raspberry jam with bits of apple and cucumber in it.') and Gideon shows up (he knows the unfortunate groom). Barbara, in a fit of schadenfreude, is happy to spill the beans about Tom (he's in Australia so what do I care--but I do hope a not-quite-deadly spider takes up residence in his shower) which is the nicest/nastiest thing she could do. The decks are cleared for action! Fire at will!
Gideon comes to visit Father (who is still thinking about cod for all we know) and they concoct a scheme to get Amelia over to Holland for a day or two. Change of scene...fresh perspective and all that. Gideon's young brother picks her up from the airport and tells her all about his life. "...planning a trip to America. Just to look around, you know. I don't suppose I shall like it all that much..." That's like the sixth filthy crack The Great Betty makes thus far (more to follow!) about my national identity. Evidently you didn't visit America--you toured it from the end of a 10 foot pole.
Dear Betty, We like you. Why so harsh? Sincerely, the Free Peoples of America
But Holland is a non-starter. Gideon seems ready to take the plunge, is distracted by a phone call, and then shies off altogether when he suggests that Amelia should write to Tom.
Write Tom?! Oh, sweet merciful heavens. Might an innocent bystander be allowed offer a piece of advice? Tom is dead to you. He is more than 10,000 miles away waging a five-year war with near-deadly spiders. And Skype hasn't even been invented yet. Get on with it!
But he lets her go back to England once more. (Idiot.)
But then he figures he's been an idiot and walks into theatre as though he's been thumped by the Plain-speaking Fairy.
I would like to take you to dinner.
She responds: I am starving and would like to come.
Evidently the Plain-speaking Fairy got around...but she didn't smack Amelia hard enough. When Gideon asks if she is perfectly happy she assures him that she is. (So happy she doesn't have enough time to take up scuba diving or shorthand typing or Dutch-castle running.) Oh, well, then he won't bother asking her to marry him.
Stop there. Sure, she fibbed but can anyone argue that if he'd had fortitude to ask her straight out, "Will you marry me?" that she would have said no? He makes zero effort to help her along even when she makes it clear that the tiniest push would send her in the right direction.
A good night's sleep is enough time to make her realize that the Plain-speaking Fairy is a girl's best friend. But, alas, Gideon has gone back to Holland. There's nothing for it but to grab her small change and head for a telephone box. She beats another woman (whom I like to imagine is trying to make bets with her bookie) to the door and dials. He's not there either! He's crowding himself into the booth and deserves the punch to his mid-section she administers while they sort out their love life at last.
The End

Rating: I'll give this a treacle tart. I like where Betty was going--exotic locales, rich detail, passionate declarations, etc. But, for love-at-first-sight people, Amelia and Gideon don't get on the same page for forever and they spend far, far too much time with darkening skies and sheeting rain (and I'm from Oregon--I know and love sheeting rain). I like that Betty is clear about Amelia's faults (she's too easily offended, proud, stubborn a fibber, petty and would probably be rotten at running a house economically) and gives us a less standard heroine. Barbara is a welcome bit of spice. Also, even though they are on different wave-lengths, you do like the couple and are rooting for them.

Fashion: Ochre lacy knit jersey dress (Tsked over by Tom). Norway gear includes: cord slacks, thick sweaters, quilted jacket, scarves, gloves, wellies and one warm burgundy jersey dress. A Jaeger suit in sage green, a large-brimmed melusine hat (w/ taffeta ribbon), and a french (not capitalized in the book) navy chiffon with sequins

Food: reindeer steaks (!), chocolate mousse, tiered cream cake, akvavit (which the men drink but she doesn't), creamy soup, prawns in aspic, tangerine syllabub, lamb cutlets, awful 'raspberry jam' punch at cousin Barbara's, bisque de homard, tournedos Rossini, tiny mince pies, sausage rolls, trifle