Monday, July 26, 2010
Britannia All At Sea
Britannia All At Sea did not have a good name with The Founding Bettys. Betty Debbie called to divvy up a month's worth of reviews a few weeks ago. One by one the books were taken until...oh, did you hear something? What was that?...just the sound of Betty Keira falling on her sword. Brittania All At Sea. That one where the girl practically has to arm herself with snares and an elephant tranquilizer gun to land our hero, right? Um, not exactly. This is yet another book that upended my derision and scorn to become very well liked indeed. Does Betty Neels rock or what?
P.S. The cover art. Bikes? Okay. Interesting heroine? I grant you. Hero? While not ugly, per se, he has too much hair for a self-respecting RDD.
Britannia Smith, 24 (but carries herself like a confident 35), is a splendidly built Staff Nurse at St. Jude's. She's engaged in a spot of multi-tasking in the sluice room--comforting a shattered student nurse and directing traffic. She doesn't know who that vast giant of a man is who wants to get on the ward but he'd better come up the other stairs like all the regular riff-raff and look smart about it.
Professor Jake Luitingh van Thien is ultimately worth all the trouble it will take to write that name out on checks for decades to come. He describes himself to Brittania less than an hour into their acquaintance as 'getting on for forty, unmarried, rich and something of a hermit; I need please no one.' Well. Hello, Mr. Fussy-britches. I'm imagining Kurt from The Sound of Music stepping out from the line and saying, "I'm Kurt and I'm incorrigible." and daring Sister Maria to do her worst.
They fall promptly in love with each other and it's not just about looks either. Haven't they just colluded to save that poor student nurse from false specimen-dropping charges (Wait. Is that poo? Does she mean poo?) wherein traits like loyalty, discretion, generosity and self-disinterest were on full display? Being in love is not going to make our Brit nurse tongue-tied and giddy though. If Jake has bad manners, well then, Britannia is going to educate him in the Miss Smith School of Manners and Butt-Kickery. Britannia manages to thread the needle--neither needlessly catty nor boringly meek. As evidenced by the time she wrinkes her nose at him in church and makes a face, she's practically a master's thesis in cheeky.
Jake, not letting the grass grow, invites her to a swanky meal at the end of her very long day. Bacon sandwiches at Ned's--greasy spoons and plastic tables evidently epitomizing London romance in the same way aggressive panhandlers and street mimes spell it in Paris? Jake gives her the third-degree concerning her marital prospects and dating status then asks if she's in love. "Yes," she said briefly, and wondered just what he would say if she told him it was himself. ...He observed in a nasty smooth voice, "I suppose I am expected to say what a lucky man he is." She puts him in a half-Nelson and makes an exit. (Okay, sure she didn't but you can't get the image out of your head now.)
Shoot. Now they'll never meet again and she's wasted her chances. But Fate is in an interesting mood and she gets an opportunity to accompany a friend to Holland on her two week vacation. She asks her parents if she should go and we are treated the the most delightful three-way dialogue about the Professor's 'suitability'. It puts me forcibly in mind of the famous "Who's on First" skit.
Editor's Note: I remember thinking that this was way way more stalker-ish the first time I read it but upon...ahem...mature reflection I rather admire Britannia for it. She has met the man she wants to marry. That man is in Holland. She must go to Holland. Betty Debbie likened it to lurking around the classroom doors of the fella you wanted to have ask you to the Homecoming Dance on the principle that proximity leads to opportunity. Britannia isn't going to chase Jake...she's just going to make chasing her a little less difficult for him.
In Holland, they meet under less than ideal circumstances. She's always on a bike. The weather is always crummy. Jake is always jumping into his Rolls (after shouting at her) and tearing down the Dutch equivalent of the inter-state leaving her to pedal on without him.
"You're not fit to be out on your own."
"...You can come with me if you like...nothing like fresh air to blow away bad temper...oh well, perhaps you can't cycle anymore." Snap.
Just when it seems like they will never make headway and that he's doomed to only see her in dumpy anoraks and sweaters for the rest of eternity, he shows up with his bike. Ah-ha! The cheekiness paid dividends. Or maybe it was calling his manhood into question...
Before you know it she's meeting his mother and Madeleine, a trendily dressed beanpole with a personality to match. And then on page 84--84, mark you! No good can come of mutual declarations of love on page 84!--he tells her that he'll never marry the beanpole because it's Britannia who makes the sun rise in the east, makes unicorns spring from baby tears and lollipops rain from the sky. Seriously though, he's quite eloquent but, though she says she returns his love, she's having none of it.
This was the other thing that nearly drove me to drink when reading this book. She spends all this time creating opportunities for him to fall in love with her and then when he tells her he has fallen 'more than a little in love with her' (a phrase which ought to be banned from proposals of marriage hereafter) she, to use a Betty-ism, funks. But upon re-reading I think Britannia had a point which, if you will grab your chair and inflatable pillow and hunker down for a spell, I will be happy to explain.
1) He is much, much richer than she had any reason to assume when she decided to do a spot of man-chasing. Britannia is the 'jug-of-wine-loaf-of-bread-and-thou' type and has to adjust herself to the inadequacy of her upbringing in preparing her for a life like his (which she only finds out about 30 minutes before his proposal). She has a good point.
2) Having decided so firmly that she loved him and wanted to marry him, it looks as though her chasing (mild though it was) is paying off. Eek, she must be thinking to herself, I shot him with my tranquilizer gun and now it doesn't look like a fair fight. What if she is merely a passing fancy for him? What if she 'caught' him? Also, good points.
And so we move on to the second portion of the book which I refuse to waste a ton of time on as it in no way lives up to the truly wonderful first act. It slows waaaaaay down and gets a little dreary.
Jake continues to try to persuade Britannia to marry him and she continues to refuse. We do get some lovely spots of snogging to relieve the tedium of her monotonous refusals and a very frustrated doctor.
On the very last day of her holiday she takes a bike ride to take one last look at his castle. Cast aside the dubious sense it makes to be bike riding in Holland in December...No, don't cast it aside. It's the whole point of the next episode which leaves her with a badly sprained ankle, nausea, a concussion, facial bruising and two (not one but two!) fainting spells. Happily, Jake knew just where to look for the future Mevrouw Professor Jake Luitingh van Thien.
Faster than you can say 'convenient plot device', it is decided that she has to stay in Holland--at Jake's. Like a sherpa on his way to the summit, he carries her around an awful lot. But he is a little aloof--she did, after all, plan to abandon him entirely and he's understandably miffed (if still determined to make her his wife).
On St. Nikolaas she is allowed to come downstairs to the family festivities--dressed like an invalid. The only beanpole in the ointment is that Madeleine is there. Britannia is offered no better explanation than, "She always comes." Like hayfever and the seasonal flu, she always comes. (Sounds like it's time to take some Benadryl...)
After dinner, Jake proposes again (in a really lovely way) and this time Britannia is persuaded to accept. "That's better." He kissed the top of her head. "Now let us be sensible and assess the situation." He paused: "Well, let us be sensible presently." But it's still only page 154 and I worry about those two crazy kids...
The engagement is not to be made official for a week or so but things seem to settle down. Britannia is still worried about entertaining on a massive scale and caring for the Weesp china but as long as she has Jake's absolute and unconditional love...
Suddenly, that is cast into doubt. Madeleine hasn't wasted the best years of her life to come in second to some anorak-sporting, tea-swilling, British bumpkin. She makes one last throw of the dice by showing up at the castle with tears and evidence. No, let's go back and capitalize that: EVIDENCE!
The letter begins, 'Mijn lieveling...' and ends, 'all my love, Jake.' Madeleine is happy to translate. I know what you're thinking but while it is easy enough in retrospect to suggest that Britannia demand the letter (not just peeks at the intro) and trot over to the Dutch to English Dictionary for hours of painstaking translation, at the time she was upset.
Jake returns to find Britannia nothing more than miserable and confused (not accusing or Weesp china-throwing or anything) and he flips his lid. (And I don't blame him too much either--he was simple-minded about Madeleine's ability and desire to muddy his waters and spent a lot of time press-ganging Britannia to accept him and his millions.)
He practically drags Britannia back to England by her hair (30 minutes to pack her things!) no matter how she tries and tries to talk things out. She is dumped at her fuddled parents' house and he wipes his hands of her.
Less than a fortnight later she is thinner and pluckily working out her notice on the Geriatric ward. Up walks Jake (with an appropriate number of pages left in the book to make it stick this time) to engage the old lady Britannia is putting to bed in a spot of conversation. "I hope that when Britannia here is your age, my dear, she will be as charming as you, and yes, I have come to fetch her; she's my girl, you see..."
Gulp. They retrench to Ned's (bacon sandwiches) and he makes her agree to marry him tomorrow.
Rating: This was so much better than I remembered. I began it in such a grumpy mood ("Oh, it's the one where she has to chase him down.") and wasn't twenty pages in before it had me laughing out loud. The first 85 pages feel like something out of a Fred and Ginger musical--the kind where if they're not singing and dancing they're slanging like fishwives. The remaining 130 pages were not as good but I don't quibble with the writing or the plot (though I don't love, love it). Rather it's a pacing problem. The Mighty Neels peaked 60 pages too early. First half: Acerbic and effervescent courtship. Second half: Doubt and Anxiety and Bodily Injury. Final pages: Cute as a bug's ear. Britannia will have a interesting personality to manage in her husband but she is more than up to the task. I give this one a boeuf en croute.
Food: Speculaas , roast leg of lamb with spiced peaches, bacon sandwiches at the beginning and end of the book, cheese on toast, disguised eel (it would have to be), lemon sorbet and a pipkin (I want a pipkin!) of soup.
Fashion: Hospital nurse's cape, autumn colored tweed suit, short dark green dress, long pink dress (her go-to in Holland), a vast and elderly blue guernsey sweater that he makes her meet his mother in (Un. For. Give. Able.), a Gucci scarf and countless anoraks. Madeleine wears a red fox fur jacket and suede skirt.