Julia Mitchell, a ravishing fiery redhead of Junoesque proportions, has just turned thirty. The big three-oh. She's nominally engaged to the slippery Nigel Longman. Nigel is an up and coming doctor, with an up and coming job interview in Bristol. In the meantime, she's Sister for Women's Medical at a hospital in London. Sister Julia has a thorn in her side. Professor van der Wagema (41). Everyone knows they don't like each other. He runs the gamut from tiresome to icy cold to bitingly sarcastic. I know what you're thinking: He's the hero? Julia doesn't have a good opinion of him, but then again, he barely registers on her radar. She doesn't know a thing about him, and what's more, she doesn't care.
Julia showers a little unused maternal instinct on a stray kitten. Nigel is off in Bristol and doesn't bother to call her with a status update. In order to find out if he got the job, Julia resorts to calling the Invertebrate's mother. Yes, her darling boy got the job. Julia shows way too much forbearance with Nigel. He is thrilled to get the job, but not keen on getting married anytime soon. Maybe next year. Julia is supposed to be satisfied with his less than thorough kissing.
If you haven't guessed by now, the sound that you're hearing is Julia's biological clock. Nigel figures they can live in the hospital-provided-flat and Julia can continue to work for a year or two (that's after waiting the better part of a year to get married)...Julia is not a nurse for nothing - she knows she doesn't have all that many childbearing years left. She reflects to herself that '30 is such a depressing age.'
In order to fight off her depression, she decides to take a holiday back at Casa de Mitchell. She can potter around, do a little horseback riding and think. Think about what? The depressing lack of commitment that she's getting from Nigel. He's proving impossible to pin down and have a serious discussion with. In fact, Julia wonders what exactly they have to talk about - beyond work?
Let's just get off the subject of Nigel, okay? He's really not worth the word count.
Remember when I said that Professor van der Wagema has a son? Young Nicholas is a pretty useful plot device. The Professor hires Mr. Mitchell to tutor the lad in Latin. It's a wonderful excuse for him to meet Julia's family.
Julia's mother is like a marital-status heat seeking missle. In less time than it takes to say 'lobster Newburg' - she manages to winkle out the fact that he has been widowed for eight years. Cha-ching! He's single. And happy to drive Julia back to London at the end of her weekend. For No Reason Whatsoever, Julia tarts herself up for the ride home...even wearing her Gucci shoes! I hope you dressed yourself to kill on my account...says he, and then he kisses her! An engaged woman (yes, she's still engaged)! Their relationship is quickly changing from adversarial to friendly.
Nicholas is more than happy to spend weekends at Casa de Mitchell. Julia goes home for another visit and the two go riding together. Papa van der Wagema rides up on his
Her: Nicholas needs a mother...
Him: He'll have one soon...
Yes, it's that hoary old chestnut: I'm In Love With You and Plan to Marry You, But Until Then You Can Just Assume I'm Engaged to Someone Else. Aargh. This will continue for the next 80 pages. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Lauris is looming larger and larger in her thoughts. Yes, that's the prelude to a Dawning Realization.
Lauris sees her distraught face in the morning and drags part of the truth from her - 'I can't marry Nigel'. He doesn't get to hear her confess her love for him yet, but you can bet he knows which way the Thames is flowing. Lauris snatches the opportunity to offer Julia a ride to Bristol - so as to have it out with Nigel. Risky business that. Taking the girl you love to meet her fiancee - there's always the possibility that they'll make up. Nope. After an initial 'You're throwing ME over?', Nigel seems positively relieved to have dodged the matrimonial bullet. Very lowering to a girl, but Lauris is right there to get the post-game wrap-up. He invites himself to dinner at her flat and asks for all the gory details.
Now that Nigel is out of the way, let's start dating! If only it were so easy. Julia is firmly of the opinion that Lauris is engaged. She does go out with him a couple of times, but always under protest 'what will your fiancee think?' Lauris could seal the deal PDQ if only he'd tell her that he loves her...not a mythical fiancee - but that's not how things roll in Neeldom. There are formalities. First of all, Julia must have lunch at his house, meet his housekeeper and his dog Digby (whose name always reminds me of an old article about the 'redshirt' characters in Star Trek - the author named the redshirts 'Digby and Johnson'...but I digress). The Sad Tale of Nicky's Mother is told. She left them when Nicholas was little - and went to America only to die of viral pneumonia (as you do...).
Proposal, kissing. The end.
Rating: This one was a mixed bag for me. Julia has dug herself into a very boring rut with Nigel. She's not getting any younger - and she's watching her dreams of a house in the country with 2.5 kids, a donkey, a pony, two dogs, a cat or two and a husband who loves her - slip slide away. Her dissatisfaction with Nigel isn't anything new in a Betty Neels, but it does ring true. She really does like him - but Nigel is unable/unwilling/too thick to see Julia as a real woman who has needs and a biological clock that is running down. I didn't appreciate how long The Nigel Affair lingered on in the book (she doesn't officially dump him until page 114!!). If you assume that the antagonistic feelings between Julia and Lauris at the beginning of the book are from suppressed desire, then his iciness and her statement "He's the most unfanciable man I know" (I♥Betty Neels)make more sense. Betty Neels dealt with a somewhat similar plotline much more deftly in Heidelberg Wedding (published the year before this one). If I had one wish for this book, it would be that we knew more of what Lauris was thinking. Such as, when did he fall in love with her? Before she fell for him, that much is obvious...but when? The best I can give it is a Mince Pie.
Food: A whole meal with capitalization - salad Niçoise, lobster Newburg, soufflé Harliquin. Macaroni cheese, cheese sandwich and lager after the cinema, cress sandwiches, chocolate cake, smoked salmon with brown bread and butter, omelette Diplomate (more capitalization!), peaches poached in champagne, mince pies, doughnuts, lobster soup, roast duck, syllabub with lashing of cream.
Fashion: The Professor wears slacks and a sport shirt (off duty), Julia wears old slacks and a disreputable sweater, an elderly corduroy skirt with a cotton sweater that had seen better days. She goes riding in slacks with an old out-at-elbows sweater and a bright scarf. When she 'dresses to kill', she wears a knitted jacket and skirt with a tucked silk blouse, all in grey, with her Gucci shoes.