Tabitha in Moonlight was always one of my favorite Bettys because of the cover art. Pert nose? Check. White bikini? Swimming trunks and implied bare chest-ness? Double check. Lab coats? Check. Pelvic x-rays? Check. Eyes that say Take-me-I'm-yours-but-only-until-the-fractured-femur-from-Cas-is-ready-for-Theater? Oh. Check. (Can I get this blown-up and mounted over my loo?) It took Betty chipwyn (which name we can amend at any time) behaving with becoming glee about the upcoming review to make me pay extra and entirely warranted attention to this awesome awesome book.
Tabitha Crawley is 25, Ward sister of Mens Orthopaedic at the "aggressively Victorian" St. Martin's, orphaned but with those tiresome 'steps', that The Great Betty so maligned, mucking up the view. Step-mother is Mrs. Crawley. She doesn't appear to have a first name. Step-sister is a...we'll call her Hurricane Lilith. Tabitha has an obsession with her childhood home, a devoted nanny-cum-housekeeper (Meg), a bad hair-do (of which much is made), beautiful legs (thank you, Betty) and the nicest description of short, straight eye lashes that I've ever read. (I am quite reconciled to my own as never before.)
Prince Marius van Beek is not a real prince but for the purposes of the book...He's 38, craggy handsome and "looked casual to the point of laziness" and "incapable of tying his own shoelaces". He smokes a pipe which seems to be the only kind of smoking The Venerable Neels approved. He has a butler named Hans whose wife died during an Actual Verifiable Historical Event.
Tabitha is plain--well, hasn't she been told so a thousand times?! She runs a tight ship over in Men's Orthopaedic and is kept on her toes by surgeon Mr. Raynard--a peppery gentleman with a matchmaking gleam in his eye. Why else, when he falls in his garden and breaks bones, would he call Standard Requisition Issue Hot Dutch Doctor to replace him and say (under sedation) that that she'd been "given the best birthday present of [her] life"?
Tabitha is instantly attracted (I'll say. Have you seen the cover art?), laments her plain face, feels delightfully excited (I'll say.) and takes him on the ward rounds.
There they meet old Mr. Bow--Knotty--longtime (but lost) friend of Marius. Tabitha has already been given an opportunity to prove her sterling qualities by un-paid, off-duty cat rescue when she stops by Mr. Bow's apartment the previous day. There she finds him living in tidy squalor with an irrational attachment to priceless objects.
She has to go to CHIDLAKE (her childhood home which she has an obsession about) for the 18th birthday of the odious Hurricane Lilith. She only goes because she loves, loves, loves her home. They only invite her because "What would people say?" if they didn't. Obviously, no love is lost and if Tabitha were found murdered it would be a case of Lilith with the Dagger in the Library.
Despite thinking that she's plain beyond redemption Tabitha brings a cute little blue-green number. Hurricane Lilith becomes whipped into a fury about clashing in the receiving line (is this a particularly 70s thing?), step-mother piles on and Tabitha makes nice by agreeing to wear what sounds like gray and white striped banquet hall bunting. Still, when Marius makes a surprise showing later on in the evening he notices "Tabitha in moonlight."
She meets him the next morning when she goes off for a Heroine-Authorized Early Morning Ramble. Salubrious chit chat follows. He says the words idee fixe for a second time and it's starting to annoy me but I remember the cover art and all is forgiven. He recommends that she change her hairstyle and when asked why replies, "to prove to yourself that you aren't plain." If I were him I would say, "Are you new here? Have you not seen the cover art?" She runs away in anger.
When he swings by her house to deliver chocolates from Hurricane Lilith ( Yes, he was with her so again, no one thinks to say, "Have you noticed the 20 year age gap?") the dawning realization hits the fan. What's a girl to do?
Typically, our Neels heroines would be scanning Nursing Today for another job in far-flung Bora Bora at the first hint that their feelings toward Mijneer Doctor van der Plotz ter Brinkma are verging on Torrid Partiality. Instead, Tabitha gets out the Vogue, finds her case of unused cosmetics, furrows her brow and goes to work. She's going to turn that sow's ear into a silk purse or die trying.
Semi-serious Editorial Note: I adore the scene when she goes onto the ward for the first time with new hair and make-up. Shyness, terror, sensitivity...My husband changed schools in high school and immediately began wearing a hat. Evidently he'd always wanted to wear a hat but hadn't the nerve to try it in front of friends who were sure to comment. Everybody feels like this. Neels writes this excellently. "Does it look awful?" she asks.
Tabitha is sure that Marius is Lilith's for the asking but being in love has made her want to be better than she had been--which I don't think our admonishing Second-wave feminist sisters would approve. Maybe Tabitha should have realized her self-worth all on her own but this feels real and it works. Okay, back to our regular programing...
Marius finally comments on her hair, "I'm glad to see that you've stopped playing Cinderella." He keeps prodding her to confront her self-martyrdom (horrible steps, loss of CHIDLAKE, deliberate frumpiness). She hates it and they fight about it but he's right and she's wrong.
Mr. Bow and Mr. Raynard, like all invalids, want to go on a sailing trip in Veere--Marius' home. Nothing says safety like leg plasters and open water. Tabitha is press-ganged into going (and you all know who they'll sue if someone falls off a boat and sinks into the briny deep).
We know how Marius feels about her as soon as they get to his house. First, her room is, like, the best one there (a bath and a shower!). Second, he shows her around the house with particular reference to the nurseries and if that doesn't say, "Open up the vault and get the family sapphires" then I don't know what does. Tabitha works up the courage to wear her bikini (I myself lack such and after four children I think I deserve the thanks of a grateful nation) and thus begin the Utopian days of daisies and buttercups clouding her vision and candy falling from the sky.
But, what's that I see? There. looming on the horizon Is that a weather system? Swirling black clouds portending doom. Is that a hurricane?
That's right. Evidently, if you're a 18-year-old blue eyed blond then nobody thinks to slap a restraining order on you for stalking. Certainly the good doctor doesn't. There she is, in the front room of the doctor's house and Tabitha stands there feeling as though, "Lilith is sucking her dry." (She's a hurricane, girlfriend. That's what they do.)
Marius spends a lot of time with the natural disaster and her mother (who Mr. Raynard earlier describes as a "terrifying woman, always smiling") while Tabitha's castles are crumbling. She's hanging in there but just. It's fairy godmothers Bow and Raynard, who gamely step forward with faked leg complaints and manufactured headaches, that save Tabitha from further insults and crowing from her horrible steps.
But they can't do everything. Before you know it Lilith has invited herself for a sail (Don't sail in hurricanes!). A fine day was enjoyed, a little light flirting between the principles and all was set to sail back to Veere. But Lilith has a headache and would Tabitha go find her sunglasses that she left on a clump of grass somewhere. (Don't do it! Hurricanes don't have headaches!) So she's ditched (accidentally by most) on the island and has to wait a long long while before Marius's yacht comes chugging back to port. He says, "Lilith was upset..." Huh. Lilith. Was. Upset.
You know I love The Neels. And this is an awesome book but he says, "Lilith was upset." Here I felt in harmony with a certain Nancy Kerrigan of Olympic fame when, upon being clubbed in the shin by the infamous Jeff Gillooly (for the purpose of the metaphor, here, The Neels), wailed "Why!" Oh Betty. Why the senseless tragedy? I took another look at the cover art. It was fortifying.
He assures her that he is angry too but the gash in my shin is already there, right? Still, Betty must have known that she'd tripped perilously close to the edge. She also must have run out of white-out or broken her type writer eraser so instead of deleting the "Lilith was upset" tossed us a treat of epic proportions. Marius shows up in the kitchen in the morning wearing "nothing more than a pair of oil-stained shorts." Which I think is the most scanty Neels ever gets (except for the one about the girl who split her pants in the quarry). It occasions no comment from our plucky heroine, however. Rather, it was like La Neels chiseled out the Venus De Milo and then stitched some Victorian knickers to go on it.
Hurricane Lilith lingers like a tropical depression, Tabitha overhears some Bow/Raynard/van Beek plotting, misunderstandings abound. Finally the hurricane and her mother leave Veere and Tabitha is left with a message that they won't be around CHIDLAKE very much in the coming months (so don't come) and that they will very likely be going to Paris. Thelma and Louise, there, may as well be driving off a cliff as go to Paris. Don't they know that nothing good ever happens in Paris?
Anyway, all this drama manages to be prologue to the much bigger event of Tabitha wearing a trouser suit! She is very "with it". She looks great in it. Everyone approves. The evening is a success! Betty never lets a heroine get near a trouser suit ever again. Riddle me that.
Back at St. Martin's things get back to normal. Tabitha wants to visit CHIDLAKE while the Steps have made their bed in Paris. Marius instead asks her to come on a day out. (Of course she says yes. Have you seen the cover art?) He takes her to visit a distant relation/patient--a woman described "an extremely fat old lady with a round face and beady black eyes...several chins...a high clear voice like a little girl's". After examining Tabitha closely she offers reassurance about her looks saying, "Time is kind to our sort." Our. Sort. (Eyes triple chin) Uh, thanks but no thanks.
Tabitha is devastated to find out that CHIDLAKE has been sold and goes to Marius for a loan. He refuses but offers to arrange a meeting. I wonder where this will lead.
She finds him in her beloved CHIDLAKE with the explanation that he'd loved her all along and only put her through such a spotty courtship because he wanted to get her the house. Implied future-tense conjugal relations are mentioned. Kissing! The end.
Solid Queen of Puddings. I had remembered this book from the first reading differently than this. I had thought that the hero was more inconstant and that Tabitha more brangling. This time I thought that except for the unforgivable "Lilith was upset" all of his actions made sense. Also, though they do argue and fight a bunch, I remembered him being more gratuitously unkind to her but (thanks to the boosterism of Betty chipwyn) I took the time to notice that he was prodding her out of her complacency because he wasn't interested in having a martyr for a wife. That I can admire. Mr. Bow and Mr. Raynard are so adorable. The whole book is worth it if just for them. The Steps are pretty much cardboard cut outs of real people but the dialogue is fantastic (After telling her that Dom Deluise in drag might have loathed her on sight, spunky Tabitha replies dryly, " How friendly of you to expose me to such a possibility.") Tabitha is one of Betty's most believable heroines--flawed but redeemable, courageous in some aspects and shrinking in others, she grows and changes. A fun, fun read.
Fashion: green and blue shot silk dress (that she totally caves into not wearing), blue jersey dress (a girl's best friend), last year's grey and white striped dress (if Lilith likes it on you, take it off), oyster silk dress and a pink floppy hat (that he tells her to wear well back as he wants to see her face. Woot!), bikini (take that! Hurricane Lilith), pink denim pants with pink and white checked shirt (I am thankful to have been born when people embraced more sensible fashions like acid-washed jeans and over-sized tank tops), a dashing and with it trouser suit, oil-stained shorts (Thank you, Betty)
Food: the merits of fish and chips sans newspaper and with are discussed, seedcake, creme brulee, wedding food: sausages on sticks and "little rolls dangerously oozing mustard", a "dessert of fresh pineapple filled with a delicious concoction of almonds and bananas and whipped cream, lavishly awash in rum" (I pass.)
Maths: At one point she discloses her entire monetary portfolio. 500 British Pounds yearly in her nursing position, a 250 pound annuity from her mother and an elderly Fiat 500--all to secure a 20,000 pound loan. I ran those numbers through a highly scientific and entirely incontrovertible 1972 era conversion chart from pounds to dollars and then tabulated the inflation rate into 2010 money. Conclusion: She was hoping to buy a nice little Georgian manor on a cliff with a sea view (in great condition) for $41,511.63. The same amount might--might--bag you this little sweetie in a not-so-nice part of the greater Portland metro area. I wonder if you can see the sea from there?
Of course her salary totaled $1,036 and the annuity, $518 so maybe the ratios weren't as bad as they sounded. Either way it makes it seem like she's one step away from patting down her patients for loose change. That or I've muddled my sums...