Monday, September 26, 2011

Grasp A Nettle - Reprise

Betty Keira really threw me under the bus with this one.  I have to admit that Grasp a Nettle is not amongst my favs...but then again, I don't find it quite as horrific as all that.  I think part of my problem is that the second (or possibly third?) act just doesn't live up to the promise of the first act. Once Jenny has her Dawning Realization, all that fighting is just not fun any more.

I have a question for you's driving me crazy...who does the man on the cover remind you of?
Betty Debbie

Grasp a Nettle is/was one of Betty Debbie's least favorite books and when we began searching out websites for what was to become the awesomest blog ever (this one. I mean this one.) we stumbled across this site--a great resource for cross-over characters and I think the Betty bio linked to in our header also came from here. But there it was. Grasp a Nettle was the author's most favorite Neels. How could this be? So when I re-read it I was looking for the occasional flashes of brilliance that would rise the book out of the swamp of pedestrian brangling.

Jenny Wren--a name, no matter how innocently used, that manages to remind me of Kevin Bacon's character in Footloose. She is 25 and a nurse at Queen's Hospital in the East End of London. She's got a pretty face, is average height and nicely rounded. She's also got red hair--an Outlier for sure. She comes home on holidays to help out at the family's stately home. Say what? That's right. They're pretty well off but Jenny is the independent type that prefers not to sponge off the estate. Aunt Bess orders everybody about and Jenny sells tickets to tourists in the lobby.

Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk is a mouthful. Don't fret yourself, he almost always goes by van Draak. He is a surgeon and Dutch of all things! He's near forty or almost forty or approaching forty--you never really find out but the point is that he is tall with iron-grey hair and has a "masterful nose" (Which, really, on a man would be quite charming but she's stuck if their daughter inherits it. The van Draak te Solendijk's don't strike me as the kind to go for plastic surgery.)

Dry Ground--Dimworth:
Jenny has been spending a lot of time--off camera, so to speak--telling the oldest son of the neighboring estate (read: heir) that she doesn't have any interest in marrying him. He's a sedate driver, entirely 'suitable' (beware that sobriquet), has a little tummy bulge and his neat penmanship is a moral indictment of his utterly placid nature--and unlike the te Solendijk's of this world, Tubby Toby really is placid. Still, he's like a LIMPET and she can't shake him. If only she could meet someone she has chemistry with!
Aunt Bess has a very handy subdural haematoma--if ever pooling blood can be termed handy. Jenny has to throw her job over (Aunt Bess doesn't thank her, not once!) and come nurse Aunt Bess. Enter the smorgasbord of Dutch deliciousness.

The Good Doctor and and Jenny hit sparks off immediately. He is a teensy bit stiff-rumped, his penmanship is probably nigh unreadable, he drives like a demon and he makes bets with Aunt Bess just to get her to lie still. Of course, in the face of all that self-contained bo-dacity, she has to stick her tongue out and be pert and flippant. They're perfect for each other. And at the heart of things they both know it--else why the hugely flirtatious fisticuffs?

At one point he tells her that he isn't interested in her (Proverbs 16:18) and she asks what on earth his ideal woman would look like? (And if that's not asking for a snub, I don't know what is.) He answers: Tall, calm, sweet-tempered--with good looks, of course; fair hair, blue eyes, a pleasant voice.

Oh, well, if it's a blond you want...

Margaret is Jenny's cousin's widow and mother of the heir to Dimworth. She makes her indolent way down to the stately home from time to time to strike interesting poses and avoid work. Her son the baron is just 6-years-old and his mother is described as "beautiful, languid and not particularly maternal." Later, she reminds Jenny of a "Botticelli angel". That's when I remembered something that bothered me about Botticelli (Humanities nerd alert) when I visited the Uffizi a few years ago (sandwiched neatly between weaning one baby and having another). This is what I wrote in my journal: I finally 'got' Botticelli's Venus, in a huge frame I see a delicacy and wistfulness that is touching. I think he used the same model for Madonna and Child and her similar expression [appears there as] a vapid disinterestedness that is frankly inappropriate. Meet the two faces of Margaret. Her dog and pony show might be attractive to a man but as a parent she can barely summon up the requisite human emotions to make Oliver matter more or less than a stray puppy.
The flip and pert dynamic of Jenny and Eduard becomes interlarded with jealousy and perturbation (which word I hope you're reading per-turb-a-tion).
While at Dimworth, a clock tower stair collapses under the crushing weight of fleeting opportunities and pigheaded British lasses. Eduard rescues Fair Jenny from the top of it by insulting her pluck and illustrious ancestors. He most likely confuses her jungle-cat leap at his jugular with a clench-teethed jump to safety. Anyway she's down and safe and still prickly with him, otherwise this would have been a very short book one way or another.

As a piece of restorative medicine, Aunt Bess makes plans for a cruise. Oh, I feel faint. A slight headache coming on. A run over to lovely Corfu would be just the...Oh yes, back to Aunt Bess. She is a steamroller wrapped in purple velvet--getting her way in a not entirely charming manner. Dr. Hunky says to Jenny, "Your job?" British lass replies, "None of your business." Hunky doctor counters, "It could be my business..." The proper response to this always ought to be, "My ring finger is size four. I like heirloom sapphires."

Briny Deep: Cruise near Portugal
But she thinks that by "It could be my business" he must mean Margaret because, after all, he did say he had a thing for cardboard blonds...
On ship Jenny has a lot of interested men wanting to hang about which is not important at all but it does something for my female ego to know that more than Tubby Toby (who really just needs to find himself a frowzy blond willing to have six kids in quick succession) likes her.
The Good Doctor shows up--which is much harder to do causally than you might think--and joins the ship for a few days. He has flown his own plane out to Portugal--a recipe for doom if you are an American country and western singer but safe enough for a Dutch doctor, I suppose. They have some lashings of cream flirtatiousness (he insults her future children, she implies that he is old, he notices she is frightened, she calls him odious) and to top it off I give you a fabulous dawning realization:
"...I just want to be independent." As she uttered the words, the niggle exploded into amazing solid fact; she had no wish to be independent, it was the last thing she wanted to be...
Beware the Exploding Niggle! It sounds like a very nasty case of Ebola...

Boggy Marshes: Kasteel te Solendijk (Holland)
Figuring out that she is head over clogs in love with him has changed things. Gone is the flippant, laughing remark. Here to stay is Jenny of the wounded ego and baleful expression. Back in England they make plans to go to Holland (because a recently ill old woman needs travel and still more travel) for 'check-ups'. Margaret throws a really excellent tantrum over not being invited to come ("We're going to get married!") but Oliver, her son, gets to go because...this is the part of many British novels where the author throws up his hands and yells, "Primogeniture!" makes zero sense for Oliver to spend any time away from his inheritance but Mommy's Little Plot Mover has to come along and because he's the possible heir to all of Aunt Bess' massive wealth Margaret stays mum-ish.
When they get to Eduard's red-brick pepper-pot albatross there is a little moment of real class embarrassment. Usually, hot millionaire Dutch doctor proposes marriage to plain/pretty poor British girl. It's a large leap of upward mobility for Hyacinth Jemima Beryl Darling. In Grasp a Nettle he owns a castle and doesn't charge tuppence to have his priceless William and Mary settees sat upon by primary school children eating grubby cheese sandwiches. He doesn't have the annoying vicar's wife charging for homemade jam and souvenir pencils. Jenny, when she realizes this, wants to quietly sink through the floor. And for some reason, I do too.
He quotes poetry at her: Tender handed stroke a nettle and it stings you for your pains, Grasp it like a man of mettle and it soft as silk remains.
Girlfriend needs a Hot Dutch to Dense Brit dictionary.
Aunt Bess has her tests and Jenny sight-sees some with Oliver and loses him on a canal boat. This is the same six-year-old that could absolutely be relied on to not upset Aunt Bess after her surgery and old enough to have things explained to. He's mature enough for all that but he hops onto a canal boat when her back is turned? I'm thinking that the computer chip implanted under his skin labeled Maturity Regression was inadvertently tripped.
Of course in her moment of abject humiliation the doctor has to show up and of course she has to slip on a banana peel when she finds Regressive Oliver and get a concussion. (Right about now I'm thinking of all those men on the cruise ship--happy to have the memory of attraction and competence to warm me in my hour of need).
He chews her out when she comes to--or rather his eyes do. She is whisked off to the emergency room and then to a boutique (a new dress is needed) and then off to meet his parents. Dirty pool, I say. She's meeting the folks of the man she loves before the local has worn off? Dirty pool, doctor. Still, his mother meets her full of "charm and devoid of curiosity." I aspire to be that kind of lady. I am not as yet, however. Though it sometimes happens that I am all curiosity and no charm...Discuss.
She is so keyed up at the thought of being told off by him that evening that she employs a little Carl von Clausewitz's OnWar ("The best defense is a good offense.") when she should have been reading the Sun Tzu's Art of War ("He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.") Rookie mistake. (Slaps forehead.)
He waylays her in the hall and she shouts, "I hate you!" Dear me. That might put things back for another...let's see (flips open book, dum-diddily dum)...41 pages.
Margaret arrives in a terror of motherly angst that lasts long enough to water her lashes charmingly and lean on the doctor's rock solid arm. Then it's where's-my-luggage and hold-the-dinner and can-somebody-get-me-a-drink. She is presented with a gift by Oliver's the word when you've given birth to something and they, like, totally think you belong to them?...son. It is a ghastly lamp with a garishly painted Dutch girl that plays "The Bluebells of Scotland." (A song about a laddie that has disappeared! Oh the Layers of Betty! Find me this on eBay. I must haves!) She hates it and this incident only serves to underline Jenny's awesomeness and Margaret's shabbiness. Good parenting is about rhapsodizing over macaroni necklaces and Meg just doesn't cut it.
Oliver and Jenny and Eduard (which is a seriously awesome name) have a day of sightseeing that loosens everyone up enough for a ceasefire and a little kissing--well, not Oliver. He's mature enough to be enjoying an ice and the village clockworks and averting his gaze.
But later it appears that Margaret and Eduard have become engaged because Margaret is bothering to smile (and not just at a man) and Eduard is ordering a donkey and a pony (which must be the Dutch equivalent of a man selling his two-door hatchback for a four-door sedan. He is ready to settle down.) Margaret is really secretly engaged to a man who is decent and knew her from her pram and (most importantly) is not an American so can be trusted to bring up little Oliver correctly.
The doctor asks Jenny if he can tell her something and instead of listening to him she assumes that he wants to break the news of his engagement (Does she not understand that she's the heroine of a Betty Neels book?!). So she tells him she'll be ready to listen at Dimworth.
And boy is she...

An engagement in a spiral stairwell. Nice, Betty.
Rating: I'm having a really tough time rating this. It's not as bad as I remembered--not even close to that bad. So, I guess a treacle tart. It's nowhere near as awful as some I've read (I'm thinking of that one where she accidentally kills a horse and that other one where she runs away because his relative is insane (almost) and he ends up finding her on a bridge) but Betty Debbie has a point--they do bicker a lot. But on the other hand, Jenny has some really great comebacks and in the first half of the book, a tremendous sense of flippant fun. On the other hand she screams "I hate you!"....You get where I'm going with this. But for that "I hate you!" I might rate this higher if only for the speedily purchased donkey and the deft hand The Venerable Neels wields with the supporting characters. The book is practically boeuf en croute for the first 100 pages but the rest isn't quite as fun for me. (But it could be for you! Aggghh. This one is really really hard to rate!)
**So, I wrote the rating before the review and now that I've finished the review I want to rate it higher. It does lag in the third act and I find Aunt Bess annoying and I still hate that "I hate you!" but they really have fun with one another. This might be a boeuf en croute...minus.
Cars: a Morgan 2-seater (hers) and Aunt Bess owns a Vauxhall. He owns a Mini, a Panther J72, and a Bristol 412. Tubby Toby owns a Austin Maxi.
Fashion: leaf green chiffon, silvery crepe, silk flowery beige (that makes her look awful and which he hopes she chucks out a window), many jersey dresses, and Aunt Bess's grand plum silks.