Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Secret Pool - 1986

The Secret Pool is a love it or hate it kind of book...for me, it's a bit of both. The story is engaging - but so is the emotional manipulation. Here goes:
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 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 " 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 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 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.


  1. Nearly seven months later and I'm the first one to comment on this "book of contention"? Wow.

    Oh, it's a tearjerker all right, but then I'm a sucker for angsty goodness, even though I sobbed when Lisa died. (The account of which, I must say, is very low key. The sentence with the word "died" isn't even the end of the paragraph. Skim and risk missing it and then wondering why everyone's extra mopey all of a sudden.)

    No, I have only one complaint about The Secret Pool, and it's the ending. Supposedly Litrik has been in love with Francesca (I will never voluntarily call a Neels heroine "Fran" if I can help it.) I really don't think The Great Betty had that in her mind while she was writing the book, and as a denouement, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

    But the book, other than that last little bit, does make sense to me. In fact, it's almost nuanced -- Litrik has to have some pretty complicated feelings for Lisa, including impotent rage at not being able to prevent or even stave off her death, but his love for her is unquestioned. She wants a mousy mama, then she shall have a mousy mama. Francesca is perfect and when she shows up in Holland, he's able to advance his plan -- after first testing her with Lisa. (Can you imagine the parade of Veronicas he tried out first only to discover that not a one of them could even make eye contact with Lisa?)

    But if he'd been in love with her the whole time, surely he'd have been nicer to her. She totally rose to the occasion and was the best mousy mama Lisa could possibly have wanted. It would be surprising if a widowed father *didn't* have some feelings for the woman who was delighting his ailing daughter.

    Anyway, I prefer to think that he wasn't in love with her at all, and actually rather resented her (more of that impotent rage - he has to admit that he can't be everything that Lisa wants, just as his medical expertise can't save her) all the while that Lisa's alive. Then, after Lisa dies, he finds himself reluctant to let Francesca leave. She falls, he realizes he cares about her. She goes missing, he realizes his life without her is bleak and meaningless.

    I can also see why Francesca said yes so promptly. First off, it's an instinctive decision -- if you have to think about it, you'll never say yes. But she had a thumb on the scale in favor of agreeing to Litrik's plan: by marrying him, she gets out from under the aunts. Even when she plans her return to England, she's not going back there.

    One last thing. Rereading this after having written a novel makes me think that Betty Neels had experienced the death of a loved one when she wrote it. It's hard to write of deep emotions, and this is 85% a book about grief and loss and 15% about love and happiness. I don't think she could have pulled that off if she wasn't dealing with grief and loss in her own life. I could be wrong; that's just what I think.

  2. I think you put a finger on why I have a small problem with the book too. I love the part (I think I'm remembering this correctly) when he tells her that when he first ticked her off as a student nurse, he felt quite guilty about it afterward...

    But you're right, I'd rather he not discover his feelings until after Lisa dies because he's not a very nice in-love person otherwise...

  3. Magdalen, I agree with everything you have observed in your post. It seems strange to say I loved this book, full of sadness and angst, but that is the how I feel. Francesca's reactions and responses are so human, and as real as LaNeels is. The handling of Lisa's death is so simple and no frill - it is what it is.
    My objection is the same, I don't see how he could possibly love her till after Lisa's death. Just don't buy it. All of his words and actions speak to his feelings and goals for Lisa, nothing else. After, when his attention has nothing else to focus on, there is time to consider someone else, and room in his head and heart for Francesca.
    Also, just as a point of information, Francesca and Litrik appear in two other books, and each time the story of Lisa is different.

  4. Betty Barbara here--
    Well, I think we have almost total agreement that Litrik didn't really fall in love with Francesca until after Lisa's death. I am with Betty Magdalen--I think Our Betty wrote her standard 'declaration of love' scene without thinking about how it clashed with the actual actions in the book.

    As for the other books--well, I just think Our Betty was prettying up history, or else she really couldn't remember what she had actually written! Or that it was too painful to revisit, so let's just make something up!!

  5. Okay, so Litrik and Francesca are in The Girl With the Green Eyes, but what else?

    It bothers me that we never got to meet Hugo & Sarah van Elven post-implied marital relations (I wanted to meet Rosemary, their daughter named after a former patient who gets a complete flat renovation as part of her pre-death, make her happy at all costs, treatment). In an oddly related matter, it bothers me that Litrik & Francesca named their daughter Lisa. Honors Lisa I's memory, sure, but did they need to?

    The problem there is that calling a teeny baby Rosemary is sweet and charming and *does* honor the old woman's memory. But calling the second daughter by the now-dead first daughter's name is creepy and just wrong. Maybe as a middle name...

    I have a friend whose brother died tragically young (nothing sinister, he just keeled over at age 30 -- they had an inquest but really in a very tiny number of cases in the UK, young men just keel over). My friend, Debbie, was understandably really shaken by this. She immediately ditched the working class boyfriend of four years and went looking for a professional she could marry. She found a guy (the less said about him the better) and Betty Henry and I went to the wedding.

    What bothered me was that Debbie had deliberately scheduled her wedding for the anniversary of her brother's death. I may not like her choice of groom, but I still felt for the guy -- imagine picking an anniversary gift every year. ("Oh, our first wedding anniversary and the fourth anniversary of Bro's death...the books say I should give something made of PAPER edged in black!")

    Same thing here: Imagine being Lisa II and having your name explained to you. "We loved your sister so much that we reused her name..."

    Maybe in Neels-land (a sixth state of The Netherlands...) that flies, but I wouldn't advise it in real life.

    1. Hugo and Sarah make an appearance in Uncertain Summer...and they do have a daughter....😀

    2. Hugo and Sarah make an appearance in Uncertain Summer...and they do have a daughter....😀

  6. I dated a guy once who arrived about 9 months after his infant brother's accidental death. His middle name was his deceased brother's middle name and he had serious issues about being the "replacement" baby. I never understood it. 1) he would have been the 2nd child so it isn't like he was never going to be born, heck, he might have been conceived before the death 2) wouldn't his parents cherish him more knowing that life is fleeting?

  7. Francesca and Litrik also appear in "Never Say Goodbye." Also, we do get to meet Hugo and Sarah again, in another book. It's not cross referenced on the site I use, and I don't remember the names, but our heroine decides to leave and runs away to Sarah and Hugo's only to find her RDD waiting there for her. Now I have to do some sleuthing later today, for now, I have to get at the housework!

  8. Betty Kylene -- It's not whether his parents treasure him that's the issue, it's the idea that they treasure him in the same mental bracket as mourning their-son-that-died. Children need "individuation" -- a $5 word for getting a sense of their own identity. By linking the two boys' names, they were communicating that *they* saw the connection between the two boys, which is hard on the surviving kid.

    But I have to be honest -- this is all outside my ken. My parents had my sister, then the next pregnancy went to term but the baby was stillborn, then they had my brother. They gave Bill the exact same name they'd picked out for the baby-that-never-was, and as far as I know no one cared. Part of that may be because he was stillborn, so there's no personality there. Part of it may be a kind of Yankee frugality: why waste a perfectly good name. I dunno. I do know that by the time I was due (after having Bill and another son), my parents had run out of boys' names they could agree on. If I'd been a boy, I was to be either Hugh or Simon...

  9. I'm pretty sure it used to be a fairly common practice to recycle names of deceased children - infant mortality was quite high in the past.

    A bit confusing when you're doing genealogy to have more than one child with the exact same name.

  10. Betty Barbara here--
    Oh yeah! having done genealogical research for more years than I would care to count--the practice of re-using names was VERY common. And it can drive the researcher absolutely right 'round the twist.
    I have at least one family in my line where all of the children died during an epidemic. So the parents did indeed start over again--and recycled bits and pieces of the names. I have often wondered how those children felt!
    Betty Magdalen--in my mother's family, the still-born were actually given names and those names were NOT re-cycled. Maybe that's a Catholic thing....

    Anyway--Really bad form for Francesca and Litrik to name their biologic daughter Lisa. Me, me, can I be that child's therapist? Huh??Huh???? Pleaseeeeeeee.....

  11. I'm not enormously fussed by it. Since Lisa was not biologically related to Litrik (though as a child of an adoptive family, pretty-please ask me who my 'real' siblings are. You might get clocked.), I see it as a way of bringing Lisa into the family they had together. Sort of a this-child-wouldn't-exist-but-for-the-lovely-influence-of-dead-Lisa-ness. I dunno, I don't have any names that come from deceased relatives and I wish I had some (though agree that a sib might be difficult.

  12. Betty Keira, my sister adopted four teens 20-some years ago, a few years after she was widowed. (with "no skills" she was having difficulty finding a mission that needed her, so basically she created her own!)

    The kids were two brother/sister sibling sets. In both cases, the girls have bonded into the family extremely well. Except for moments like this, that they are adopted is never part of my consciousness or anyone else in the family. They are my nieces. Period. Their brothers consider us all family - I have no doubt they'd have been just as distant from any family. But it's hard. Not our style at all. But that's not why I commented! :)

    Hazel (said sister) had two biological children who were out of the house when she adopted the kids. They were always great about accepting the role of big sister/big brother. Robin, as the eldest, can be a bossy-boots, but that's just Rob. The three sisters are as close as sisters can be. They all say they want what their mother and aunts have. One of the few times I like being a role model! :)

    Robin is a medical social worker at the local medical center. Recently, Stacy started to work there per diem, as her daughter just started first grade. (She and her husband have been trying to get pregnant almost since Maggie was born, and last week had their first assisted insemination - we're praying!) One of their co-workers said to Stacy the other day, "Oh, yes - you're Robin's step-sister."

    Stacy said she was so taken aback by that stupid comment. "Um, no. I'm her sister, period. I have papers to prove it."

    Why would that goofy woman (a SOCIAL WORKER - how scary is that?) feel the need to apply such a term? Even the somewhat distant brothers never say anything but "brother" or "sister." And I know plenty of families where they really are "steps" who never use the term.

    And, back to the discussion at hand, your way of looking at the "Lisa-deux" thing is pretty much the way I saw it, after a "Oh, wow, that's interesting," pause. The first girl born in our family after our sister Jean died has her name for a middle name.


  13. ...and then there's our family in which we have two brothers named Brian, and two sisters named Rebecca. No big deal, they generally are referred to using middle names too, as in Brian Neal and Brian Keith.

    That's what you get with a huge family - seventeen adopted kids and three 'steps'.

  14. We have two Davids and two Jeffs - and the Jeffs have the same middle names!

    We use last names - each of the "duplicates" married one of my nieces.

    Robin was engaged to David when Hazel adopted the kids, which included a David. Robin's brother, Duke had a 3 year old son at the time, Erik, who solved the whole thing by falling in love with the "new" David, and he'd say "Aunt Wobin's David or my David?" For years, we called them Erik's David and Robin's David. :)

    About the time Erik went in the Army, we stopped saying that. He's the proud daddy of his own 2 year old with another on the way now. Time flies!

    Your family sounds fascinating - I love big families. My best friend is one of two and is constantly amazed at the excitement my family can generate. Illnesses, spats, financial difficulties, deaths, births - oh the births! Three of my sisters are now great-grandmothers. This next generation is populating like rabbits - there's always one or two couples expecting a baby.


  15. I was reading this this morning and can't resist a comment. I named my daughter after my deceased sister. :-) My sister passed away the day after she was born when I was five years old. It was one of the hardest things my parents ever went through, and I never forgot it. I decided I would name my eldest daughter Monica Marie when I was a young teenager, well before meeting my husband. Who knew his last name would also start with M? So her initials are MMM (we call her three M). My parents love the fact that their granddaughter is named after the daughter they so desperately wanted (they had waited five years for her). So I can see it as a positive thing for sure

  16. Cyndi - that's a lovely thing to do and a lovely name, too.

    Initials are a whole 'nother thing. As I've mentioned elsewhere here (probably a dozen times!) I'm the youngest (by a good bit) of six girls. The first four were born in 5 years and all have traditional names for family or, in Helen's case, a close friend. Clara Rose (named for both grandmothers), Helen Ann, Jean Delores (named for my father's sister) and Hazel Mae, (named for mother's aunt and mother, who was Clara Mae.)

    When Mom got pregnant with Kim, there was little question she'd have another girl, but either way, a boy would have been named for Dad (Jack) so she knew she wanted a Kimberly and as our last name was Meyer, she decided she wanted her initials to spell the obvious nickname. She played and played with "I" names. My paternal grandmother was Rose Irma, but Mom couldn't quite "go" Kimberley Irma. She doodled Kimberley "I" Meyer for months, never quite settling on a name.

    When Kim was born, she had thick black hair past her shoulders (I never really believed that until our Erik's son, Kael was born with the same hair!) and the delivery nurse said, "Well if it isn't Penelope Ann!"

    Mom said "Her name is Kimberley Irene!"

    She always said she'd never considered Irene in all of that doodling.

    (Kim was also born with a white streak of hair in all of that black mop. Oddly, little Kael has a blond streak.)


  17. I have to say every time I read or re-read a Betty Neels book now I come here to see what the "review" was and the comments- I get more LAUGHS this way. I get laughing so hard, I have tears in my eyes. You gals are SOOO funny! This is actually one of my favorite BN books. I like it b/c the characters seem LESS cardboard then a lot of her characters... And Litrik does have a TOTALLY valid reason for being such a stiff (unlike some of BN "Doctors") Also I do think that Litrik fell in love with her early (probably when she told him off about "Mrs. Owen" but he was too ticked off at her and the world to admit it. (at least that's how I read it...) - I actually liked that he proposed and said they'd get an annulment - that's SOOO unusual for a Betty Novel and it actually helped the story not be so (sorry) Long like a lot of them...

  18. Please - does anyone know the name of the artist who did this cover? He did an enormous number - many of Anne Weale's.

    1. Betty Magdalen is our cover-artist expert. BETTY MAGDALEN! YOO HOO! We miss you and need you...

    2. Sorry, the one artist I recognize is Bern Smith. This one not so much.

    3. There's a book: The Art of Harlequin Mills & Boon Cover Designs currently $10 at Amazon. Click here.

    4. Betty Barbara here--
      Just don't buy the book hoping for Betty covers, as there are none!! The covers are cool and some are quite gorgeous and it was amazing to me how many of them I recognized from my years of reading Harlequins!

    5. Canadian illustrator Will Davies (Betty Neels, The Secret Pool)
      Album "Will Davies" by leifpeng on

      Will Davies (Anne Weale, Sophie’s Secret) .
      todaysinspiration.blogspot: True Romance

      Anne Weale, A Marriage Has Been Arranged

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Thanks, Betty Anonymous. And to the original Anonymous who asked the question, here's a nice blog post about Will Davies: CLICK HERE