Monday, July 12, 2010

Sister Peters in Amsterdam--1969

The Great Betty Neels wasn't a spring chicken when she took up writing. I don't know if she always scribbled here and there. I don't know if she knocked out random chapters of books that never went anywhere and sat in the bottom of some drawer somewhere. (Someday we may uncover a missing manuscript for a Betty Neels space opera, I'm sure of it.) The way she tells it, she simply overheard someone telling a librarian that there weren't enough good romance novels and a switch was flipped on inside her. One day she was a nurse and another day she was a writer. If she was half as hard-working and dedicated to her nursing as she was to her books, she must have been amazing. Her first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam begins, "It was one o'clock; the corridor leading from the main hospital to the children's unit was very quiet." The rest is history.

Adelaide Peters is the baby whisperer. She's a nice looking redhead of 25 and a capable sister in charge of Children's Emergency and Outpatients. When little darlings are recalcitrant or fussed or inconveniently damp Sister Peters dons her Lasso of Truth and her Deflecting Wristbands, hops into her Invisible Jet and rules that ward. She has a minister father, twin brothers, Matthew and Mark (love it!), for whom she sends school fees and monetary help home and a mother who live off in the country somewhere.
When Baron Professor Coenraad Blankenaar Van Essen visits her ward and tours the facilities he is secretly checking her suitability (and her statistics) for a one-year nurse exchange program. Don't start asking pesky questions like, "But, Betty Keira, wouldn't it be medically unsafe to put a woman in charge of sick children under emergency conditions when she doesn't speak a common language with them or their distraught parents?" To which I answer, 'She's the baby whisperer. Just go with it.'
And then she's off to Holland!
Adelaide has agreed to go because the professor is hot. Sure, sure, international travel, broadened horizons, foreign language mastery...that's all there too. But lest we forget: The Professor is HOT.
The structure is a little unusual in this book so I'll take this in seasons.
Arrival and re-acquaintance with hot doctor. We are introduced to the character Freule Margriet Keizer, a shadowy figure initially, who seems to see a lot of the good doctor. Addy struggles with the difficult language and muddles her verbs charmingly but proves herself as a dedicated nurse and a sensible woman.
The Great Neels uses this opportunity to chuck every Dutch tradition in the pot like a very well-bred mulligan stew. During the feast of Saint Nicolaas we meet Zwarte Piet, Nicolaas' 'black slave' (okey-doke), and Addy meets Margriet. Addy isn't in love yet so her hopes aren't precisely dashed but she does like Coenraad enough to feel sorry that he's taken. (Girlfriend, a wise woman once said, 'If you like it then you should have put a ring on it. Oh, oh, oh.')
On New Year's Eve she is invited to his aunt's house for a party--the first time he will see her out of uniform! How disappointing then to be looked at as though she were an advertisement for Lawn Aeration or Carpet Installation. She is angry with him--incensed that he is non-responsive to her considerable feminine whiles. Thus she embarks on a curious one-sided courtship. No actual attempts at wooing are made, but she assumes the right to hate him (when he brushes her off) and Margriet (when she...acts like herself) nonetheless. I am put in mind of that movie The Mouse That Roared wherein the tiny country, in a bid to recover economically when a California vineyard knocks off their only export, declares war with America only to have a difficult time being noticed at all.
Or Pepe Le Pew making violent love to a flower pot. I'm put in mind of that too...
Either way, Addy has her moment of flashing realization that night. She is in love with the Professor. (Smacks head) That's why I want to scratch Margriet's eyes out!
The Betty Neels I know and love could wrap things up within days or weeks of such an event but if I may draw your attention to the YEAR-LONG CONTRACT Addy signed...We've still got the better part of two more seasons to traverse.
Addy gets lost in a blizzard (in a city!), is rescued by you-know-who with the medical degree and smashing bedside manner, and weathers some blistering cattiness from Margriet who has attached herself to the Professor like an oxpecker on a rhino's backside (only less willing to eat ticks). Think she's going to roll over and let another symbiotic relationship develop under her nose? Nuh-uh.
Ice-skating also occurs in this Dutch winter and Coenraad engineers some quality time with his best nurse out on the ice.
She discovers, by asking her elderly Dutch teacher, the Sad Tale of the Orphan Boy or How the Professor Lost His Eyesight in One Eye. I won't ruin it but it involves Nazis, prison camp, loyal servants and the Late Unpleasantness.
The Professor takes her to tea where she discovers that he is a baron. "...don't you approve of titles?" "Well of course I do," replied Addy in just the right tone for someone hailing from a country governed by a constitutional monarchy. This American Betty might have replied to that selfsame question, "Ordinarily and theoretically, no. Romantically and interestingly, yes." Is there anything more drear and cheerless than those awful French novels wherein they call each other Citizen and Citizeness? Gag.
But this presents a problem for Addy. Bad enough that the Professor is rich. Worse that he's nobility. A country parson's daughter would have to be insane to reach that high. (Had she not heard of The King and the Beggar Maid?)
But then he kisses her thoroughly and she kisses him back.
Had she not just discovered his Adel-ness and wealth, this story might have ended there. As it is, she tells him not to say anything. So much better to be swamped by eddying waves of confusion and doubt when a conversational air blower could have mucked that gutter out in a jiff.
In the spring a young man's thoughts turn to lorries full of scrap iron, oil tankers and bus accidents. (Thank Betty for a stunning visual.) Addy makes a heroic rescue in tight quarters and Coenraad, in turn, rescues her.
Coenraad invites all the nurses out to his family compound for a picnic. The cable-knit sweaters, deck shoes, and bon fires practically drip off the page in a sort of amalgam of all the Kennedy clan's more glamorously wholesome activities. Coenraad and Addy swim out to a floating platform where he tells her about his eye and about how he's always hoping for a miracle.
"How did you find out that I knew?"
"You always stand on my good side when we're at work."

Aww. That's how you know they're meant for each other.
He invites her to travel with him to England. (Does he know she can't afford the fare?) After assuring herself that the trip won't include an overnight stop in Brighton (I heart Betty.), she agrees to come.
Not much time and energy are wasted on England. Addy makes an apple pie. Coenraad charms her parents. Father gives him some advice (we don't find out what) which Coenraad plans on taking. (A handy-dandy Fortune Cookie Generator tells us that it is, 'Your emotional nature is strong and sensitive.' Spot on. Eerie.)
On the trip back we find that her social life in Holland has been a bit dire. She had one ill-fated trip out with two rowdy doctors, one dance and mild chat-up with Brocade Waistcoat Fellow and what she thought would be a safe night out to a concert with Dr. Vos, an aged widower who will probably have his teeth punched in by Coenraad due to some lecherous advances made on the future Baroness Van Essen.
Then Addy, desperate to put some distance between herself and Coenraad, accepts a date with Brocade Waistcoat Fellow. The next day a fellow doctor, upon hearing who her date was, exclaims, 'Couldn't you do better than that?'
It's been nearly a year and between three lechers and a bad dresser she chose the lesser of evils. Better a Brocade Waistcoat than Wandering Hands, my mom always said.
But maybe the Professor agrees that Addy should have been able to do better. He asks her to the hospital ball and in a flurry of excitement she spends some carefully saved money on a dress. Her quiet elation is burst when Margriet, laying in wait like a jungle cat, pounces on her "by chance" (fat chance) outside the hospital.
Margriet: Hey, girlfriend. We should hang out more.
Addy: Why are your eyes turning red?
Margriet: I'm so glad that I twisted Coenraad's arm to ask you to the ball. You've only had that Carnival Freak Show asking you out so...
Addy: Huh. Don't mind that. It's the sound of my heart fracturing irrevocably. You were saying...?
Margriet: And I thought this totally uncharacteristic kindness on my part would be rewarded with the Heirloom Sapphire engagement ring! And it was!
Addy: Where is it?
Margriet: Jewelers. I'm having it reforged in the fires of Mount Doom into an exact copy of Sauron's ring--The Demon Lord of Mordor! Bye!
Addy must break the date now. She fakes a toothache--possibly the most unromantic of excuses (short of going nuclear. You know what I mean... Women's problems.)--and cancels. And then she decides she must go home. Even though it is a few weeks shy of her contract, she asks for permission to leave.
She gets all the way to his aunt's house (Where better to kill time while simultaneously avoiding Coenraad and waiting for the train?) when in walks Coenraad. He's furious and ready to drag her back to the hospital by her hair.
But somehow he manages to ask her to stay on until Friday (uh...okay) and has her explain what all that, "I hope you and Margriet are happy together, forever, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G" stuff was all about.
White faced and pinched, she allows him to dictate the terms of her dismissal.
On the day of her final departure, he waylays her in the hall, drags her off to somewhere private enough (a city square outside a church?) and gets his proposing over with at last. "I've been in love with you from the start!" Really!? Public snogging and firm wedding plans.
The End

Rating: Since this was her first effort some of the Neels-isms are light on the ground. The hero is wonderful (glasses and a depth perception problem!) and the heroine is (she hates this word) sensible. I like it. Still, it takes a long time getting going and the time frame (one whole year) is more reality based than novel based (there's a reason Romeo and Juliette takes less than a week from end to end). I was a little irked that it spanned that entire time and Coenraad didn't make his feelings more plain. However, the last 10 pages make it all worth it even if making her stay for three more days before she could leave was weird and unnecessary. I give it a boeuf en croute for originality and the spot of semi-blindness.

Fashion: Dainty frilled cap, velvet dress with chestnut brown hair bow, a green coat and hat that get serious mileage, a white bathing cap with a ridiculous fringe and a 'despised' black swimsuit, an unused turquoise blue raw silk ball gown. The professor proposes in a 'car coat'.

Food: Savory tidbits, hot chestnuts (I think I need to try some), potato chips, milkless tea, creamy cake, lobster patties, chicken legs, tiny pork pies, apple pie and chicken mousse (hm).