Francesca Manning. Plain, lovely eyes and most importantly, mousy hair. Why is the mousy hair important? Just you wait. She's a bit of a Cinderella. After graduating from her training hospital in Bristol, she has come back to the nameless little market town to work in the Cottage Hospital and live out with her three aunts. The aunts took her in when she was orphaned at age 12 - and have raised her up with no expectation of marriage. She is to stick around and take care of them. As if that isn't enough, her worst nightmare comes to town. That would be Dr. van Rijgen. During one of his lectures she had the misfortune to fall asleep - and he? He had reduced her to a state bordering on hysteria. Yes, that's our hero. Charming. He's visiting at the Cottage Hospital because someone has some kind of infectious disease and that's his speciality. The infectious disease thing...scaring young nursing students is just a sideline.
Francesca gets an unexpected letter from her cousin Clare. Clare lives in...wait for it....wait...yup, Clare lives in Holland. Not only does she live in Holland, but she's also pregnant. The aunts can't really keep Fran chained in the basement...so they 'allow' her to go. Holland has a surprise in store for Fran...while out sightseeing one afternoon, guess who shows up at the cathedral? Dr. van Rijgen, that's who. Why? Why has he tracked down mousy little Fran? That's what Fran would like to know. "You want something, don't you?" Yes, he wants something, but he's not ready to tell her what. He does go back to Clare's flat with her and in front of Clare and her husband, invites Fran to spend the next day with him - sightseeing around Holland. That sounds fun! "Fran almost choked on the idea of having fun with Dr. van Rijgen."
Fran's Day Out. The day starts with a little melodrama. "Where are we going? Where are you taking me?" Fran is sounding like a character from a bad thriller...Dr. van Rijgen cuts to the chase. He's taking her home to meet someone special.
Fran: "Your wife."Dr. van Rijgen: "My wife is dead." Way to sugarcoat it, Doc.
**SPOILER ALERT** His wife may be dead, but he does have a daughter. Seven year-old Little Lisa only has 6 months to live. Don't expect any miracles here. She. Will. Not. Get. Well.
Fran is enchanted by Lisa - and acts totally natural with her. Another day out is scheduled...this time they go to the beach with Lisa...and enjoy walking on the beach with Lisa in her wheelchair Editor's Note: Believe me, this ONLY works because Lisa is small. Off-roading with a wheelchair is not fun with anyone who weighs more than you are personally willing to lift. Word.
Dr. van Rijgen invites Fran over for a farewell tea party...where everyone but her is exhibiting signs of suppressed excitement. And now we get the most businesslike proposition, I mean proposal ever. Litrik (we may as well call him that), would like to marry Fran so that Lisa will be happy during her final few months. A quickie annulment after the funeral, no harm, no foul. He knew she was the one to be Lisa's mama when he saw her getting her gold medal at nursing school graduation, a few months before. I guess he was blinded by her mousy locks...Fran is a dead ringer for the lead character of Lisa's favorite picture book. Mama Mouse. Gosh, I'd be delighted to marry someone who thinks I look like a mouse. And wants to ditch me in just a few months. Fran gives a startled yelp. I find that completely understandable. I'd yelp too. Litrik appeals to Fran's mother instincts or something... actually he plays the "Poor Dying Lisa" card. Effectively as it turns out. Fran agrees - in fact she practically signs a pre-nup.
Item 1. Must make Lisa Happy.
Item 2. Must wear wedding dress based on child's picture picture book.
Item 3. Annulment to occur soon after funeral of dying daughter.
Item 4. I'll write you a reference when it's all over.
Editor's Note: Her acceptance sort of bugs me - yes, it's nice of her, but it's of out of the blue. There's not really even a semblance of "let me think about it..." Arrangements move apace! Litrik drives Fran back to the nameless market town in the Cotswolds to help break it to the Aunts. He steamrolls right over their selfish bones in a way that is a joy to behold. At their remark that 'it's all so sudden' (which really could have been uttered by Fran) he explains that he's known her for years...which is true - if you count being a guest lecturer/scarer of young trainees as being acquainted. He leaves Fran with instructions to get her dress made, ala Mama Mouse and the wedding is to be in Holland in 3 weeks. A kiss good-bye (for practice, don'tcha know).The dress is finished, a few brief lessons in Dutch, and it's time for Litrik to come pick up Fran. He has some bad news. Lisa is not doing well, the six month estimate was too optimistic. Back in Holland, before the wedding, it's time to act like a happily engaged couple. If Lisa expects to see kisses, then Lisa shall see kisses. Fran even kisses Litrik back.
A visit to the Dominee is reassuring, he knows all about the MOC and approves. Yes, he approves of the sham marriage on the grounds of 'anything to make a dying girl happy'.
The wedding goes well...Litrik in a morning suit was every girl's dream of a husband...that's promising, I guess. The next morning dawns, and Lisa is brought to Fran's bed. Litrik joins them, in his dressing gown, so they can partake of morning tea en famille - which sounds charming. It reminds me of Sunday mornings when I was a kid and we all climbed on our parents bed to read the Sunday comics (or 'funnies' as we called them).
We shall skip over most of the next couple of months. Fran and Litrik pretend, for Lisa's sake, to be happily married. Fran spends time playing the piano when she needs to vent her feelings. New clothes are purchased...same old, same old.
During this time, Fran takes Lisa out for drives in the country. They stop at a little farmhouse for tea, and discover "the secret pool". Lisa adores the place, so Fran brings her often, and they sit on a log while Fran tell her fairy stories. There comes a day when Lisa isn't well enough to leave the house, then she can't leave her bed...Litrik stays home to be with her, then she dies. Editor: Don't say I didn't warn you! Fran tries to comfort Litrik, and he shuts her out - "What can you possibly know about it! You haven't had a child!" Cut the guy some slack, he just lost his daughter. Fran drives back to the secret pool...and discovers that she loves Litrik. That makes everything just a little sadder to me - she loved Lisa too, and now she knows that with her death she will have to leave the man she loves. Dang. Life is hard.
Litrik starts behaving more civilly after the funeral - he seems to recognize that Fran needs a little comforting too. She may need some comfort, but that doesn't stop him going off to Brussels for 3 days and not calling. Litrik does apologize for his standoffishness "Sorry I left you alone," says he, "You don't have to be alone to be lonely," says she. Ouch. He does unburden himself of the fact that Lisa wasn't really his daughter...umm...thanks. Turns out his dead wife had an affair before they married, got pregnant, tried to 'get rid of the baby', gave birth to a handicapped child then ditched the family (before going off to die herself, remember?), thus turning Litrik into a bitter and cynical man. Bitter and cynical about love and marriage, that is. He roundly declares that "love is a myth!" Fran disagrees - "look at your parents, look at the dominee and his wife, look at Cousin Clare - if you loved someone, you wouldn't talk such nonsense." He mockingly (grrr.)says that it's almost like she's speaking from experience. Well, duh.
Fran is having a hard time dealing with the limbo of post funeral/pre-annulment and snaps at Litrik...when he says they need to talk, she snaps back - no way José. Storming out the door, she heads up the stairs, and passes out - managing to knock herself out on the way down. Which was a pity, since we get out first glimpse of the softer side of Litrik "...my poor little Fran." Lucky for Fran that Litrik is a specialist in infectious diseases or something. Fran takes 3 weeks to recover and then heads back to visit The Secret Pool. Unfortunately the old lady who lives there is prostrate with a bronchial infection or something. Fran can't leave her...so she doesn't. When Litrik gets home that evening he finds the household anxious about their missing Mevrouw. With Sherlock Holmesish skills, Litrik deduces the whereabouts of the missing Fran. He tracks her down, kisses her urgently, calls in the cavalry to take care of the old lady and takes Fran home. When they go back for a follow-up visit, Fran shows him The Secret Pool. This would have been a great time for joint declarations of love, but no...not yet. Fran doesn't pick up on his "this doesn't have to be the end." Dang.
A trip to Great Aunt Olda's 80th birthday party proves illuminating. Tante Olda is your typical Neels 'elderly'. She can ask questions that no one else will. Tante: "You do love him?" Fran: Yes, I love him soooo much. Tante: You want to have his chidren?Fran: Yes, oh yes. More than anything...Leave it to an aged aunt to wring straight answers - within hearing of Litrik. He couldn't have planned that better if he had tried, and I'm not ruling out that possibility. It's time for Fran to head back to England to renew her nursing career, right? I'm pretty sure that was part of the pre-nup...Litrik promised to write her a good recommendation if she lived up to her part of the bargain. Tickets are bought, good-byes to the servants are said, Litrik buckles her in the car to take her to the ferry at Hoek...and then drives off in the opposite direction. A conveniently empty road, Litrik pulls over..."I love you, here's your coat, sorry I was mean..." "You are a tiresome man, I can't think why I love you, but I do" Kiss, kiss. The end.
Rating: This is one of canon that makes a fairly regular appearance in the reading rotation. Why? That's a tough question. Litrik is often 'mocking', which I generally loathe in a man, but I'm willing to give him a pass on that. Why? Lisa. He has raised her as his own and done his very best to make her happy. She may not have been his biological daughter, but he didn't ever let be an issue in how he treats her. Because he loves her so much, it's a little easier to understand his grief and pain...in other words, he has reason to be like he is. Yes, The Secret Pool is a bit of a tear jerker, but sometimes, that's what I'm in the mood for. Thankfully not often. It gets a good solid boeuf en croute.
Fashion: Ivory satin wedding dress based on child's picture book illustration, Jaeger suit, jersey dress with a wildly expensive belt, leaf green cotton dress with wide white collar, expensive clothes bought with an eye to bankrupting Litrik.
Food: Crusty roll and hard boiled eggs, sausage rolls, bite-size sandwiches, chicken vol-au-vents, orange squash, smoked salmon, devilled crab, trifle, pavlova cake with pear and raspberry filling.