I never look at my shelf of Neels and think to myself, "Self, let's read Cobweb Morning". I think that part of the reason that I dislike Cobweb Morning so much, is that it had so much potential to be great (hello! retrograde amnesia - how fun is that?). The Great Betty seemed a bit out of her element - she was flirting with gothic romance...but wasn't ready to go pick out china patterns.
First off, Betty Debbie and I were sorting out our review assignments and this was her statement: You have...let's see...Cobweb (HA!) Morning! (cackle, cackle, cackle). "I'm going to remember that you did that," I intoned severely. Cobweb Morning. Ugh. I did not recall it with perfect felicity.
Alexandra Dobbs is a 27 year-old brick house. She's stacked. In her frilled and goffered hat (the strings neatly tied under one chin), she's better than Anthony Ferris (whose name denotes a certain kind of pompous chin-less-ness), the ambitious gasbag who takes her to cheap Italian places and lectures her on punctuality.
Taro van Dresselhuys, 36, is dressed in shabby tweeds and drives a middle-aged Morris 1000. I've been reading Betty Neels for a long time now and don't need Alexandra's father to remind me that a Morris 1000 is a car for elderly ladies and retired gents. "He can't be doing very well." Tatty tweeds and middling cars? Can this possibly be the hero? Maybe if we turn him on his head a rich partner will shake out of his tweed pocket and rescue the fair Alexandra from the Anthony Ferrises of this world.
Cobweb Morning begins promisingly with an auto smash-up. A beautiful blonde paperweight is brought into the ICU carried romantically by our Tatty Professor. No, our professor was not involved. Even when driving Morris 1000s Dutch doctors have Romulan Defensive Shields attached to each bumper. Instead, they (him and an elderly aunt) came upon the single-car smash soon after it happened.
Alexandra wonders who this lovely paperweight could be. Who is the old woman in the corner with the pearls, gloves and handbag? (I'm imagining Barbara Bush here but you are free here to imagine the late Queen Mother, Miss Marple, Julia Child or Frumpy Helen Mirren.) And who is the officious Dutchman recommending the Cape ventilator?
Alex (no one else calls her that but typing Alexandra each time is going to lead to a stress fracture) tells Anthony the Pompous all about the smash and the decorative paperweight but as his favorite pronouns are 'I, me, my' she doesn't get more than a word in.
The professor, evidently adept at coming upon wreckages and carnage, witnesses the Sturm and Drang of The Implosion of Alex and Anthony--"You walked down the street as though you hated--er--whatever his name is. You have a very eloquent back."
Meanwhile, the paperweight has woken from her coma! Her traumatic head wound mysteriously didn't touch her face, leave a mark on her body or result in more than 'the weakies'. All the blonde hair prompts Alex to call her 'Penny Bright' instead of Albino Viper or Man-Eating Lioness or Honey Arsenic which would all have probably jarred her memory--being as they are, doppelgangers of her personality. Wait. What was that? Memory, you say? Oh shoot. We've got a case of retrograde amnesia here. And they don't know who she is or where she came from. Don't you just hate it when you leave the house without the merest scrap of identification? And the car she was traveling in was stolen!
Hey darling, that case I've been working on. The one that made national headlines. She woke up! Guess what...
Snort. You're late and inconsiderate and...me me blah, blah blah me, blah blah blah blah me me me.
Anthony has torn it. Alex hands in her resignation the next morning in a scene so abrupt you'd be forgiven for missing it.
But back to Paperweight Penny...She's going to be released from the hospital (like some sort of medieval plague flung along with a rotting corpse over a castle wall) and live with Miss Euphemia Thrums (Barbara Bush) because no one has come forward to claim her. In a whole month no one was missing an angelic-looking sociopath? Really? This is what an economist might call a case of supply exceeding demand.
So, Taro of the Tatty Tweeds asks Alex if she might consider staying with Aunt Euphemia to nurse Penny. (Seriously, it kills me that she's named Penny. I love that name. Had my youngest little tax rebate been a girl we would have gone there.)
Okay, sure but don't pay me so much, will you? Girlfriend needs to watch a few more Today Show segments on strong salary negotiation. But she's worried about his Morris 1000 and the tweeds so, like a nice girl, wants to be Penny-wise (Ha! Penny-wise. I kill me.) for his sake.
Aunt's house is interesting. I am supposed to find it charming that a room in the back has a wall of windows leading out to the land beyond but I am hung up thinking about heat loss calculators and energy efficiency and tacky 70s era sliding doors. A good room for watching the wildlife if you want to but bring a Snuggie (This one to the left is called the Peekaru and will cost you 80 bucks and your dignity).
Penny's recovery is swift. She is peevish, irritable, sulky, bored and silent in turns. She likes nice things but only if they belong to her. She hates to be outdoors and loves laying about with a Vogue or Harper's Bazaar to pass the time.
Type that into my handy-dandy Occupational History Generator: She's a Professional Dental Patient! (Hm. That can't be right.)
But when Taro pops over from Holland she's another person--the kind that makes you feel like you've had one too many Krispy Kremes. But even her sweetness can't hide her shockingly modern views. "People don't get married these days--we're free to do just what we like." So it looks like we can cross nun, Sunday School teacher and cleric's wife off her list of possible identities...
Before Taro leaves, he and Alex share a moment of enchantment out in a cobweb morning. (Uh, a spot of snogging around the spider webs.) What a propitious time for a dawning realization.
Christmas is approaching and when Taro asks what everyone would like Penny points to a wildly expensive Vogue dress (never minding Taro's shabby clothes) and Alex, to turn his generosity into a joke, asks for a sapphire jewelry set (necklace, bracelet, earrings, broach--the lot) and a little golden angel. Laugh, laugh.
On Christmas Eve she gets a little wind-up golden angel, some hard staring and a kiss for her pains.--"...not the sapphires, they'll have to wait." (Land ho!)
It is not to be, however, as he quickly downshifts for Christmas morning, handing Penny her Vogue number and mistletoe kissing every Double X in the household. All that general jocularity dampens Alex's spirits. "She could make rings round Penny if she wished to when it came to attracting a man, but...Taro hadn't shown in any way that he would like her to...Christmas, she decided as she got into bed, was an overrated affair, and mistletoe was just plain silly." As, I suppose, is the Easter bunny, Turkish delight and the internal combustion engine. She is in no mood to see silver linings.
A few days later, Alex is driving Penny home from a shopping trip when the wheel is wrenched from her hands. Alex responds with a hard slap across Penny's lucid face (pause and enjoy....rewind, read again, enjoy some more) and the Morris 1000 sustains a knock to its bumper (no Romulan defense shields for Brit nurses). Shaking and frightened, Alex pulls into the driveway where Penny hops out of the car and proceeds to have a psychotic event. "She hit me...and drove into a tree..." Instead of slapping her again, as was entirely warranted by her mad ravings, Alex doesn't interrupt the floor show and is given a mildly hard time by the good doctor.
Editorial Note: I had remembered her being called on the carpet much more severely (and unfairly) before this reading. I owe Betty an apology. Taro does not make himself irredeemable but certainly muddies the water.
Taro approaches her the wrong way, she retaliates, there is much row-ing and she storms upstairs to pack her things. Wisely, Taro corners her and asks her to put herself in his position: There you were, darling, with that nutbar bawling her head off and the Morris' Romulan bumpers missing...You could have been killed!
Alex's best quality is that she never sulks. The bag is unpacked and no one is worried overmuch that she will sleep under the same roof as the Attempted Murderer. If The Mighty Neels had more of a Gothic bent, the gentle verbal undermining and car smash would be followed by loose stair treads, pond duckings and cudgels to the head at the bottom of the garden.
But Alex is unable to forget the clear-eyed purpose in her face while Penny was swerving the car into a mighty chestnut tree and begins to suspect that Penny's retrograde amnesia is not the Harrison Ford Regarding Henry variety where a brand spanking new personality (and better hair) comes with traumatic memory loss. No, Penny was this way before and perhaps, perhaps, she's remembering things she'd rather keep quiet.
So, Taro proposes a trip to Holland so that Penny can be examined. Alex frowned. "I haven't any clothes." "Dear girl, there's a lot I could say in answer to that, but I don't like to upset Aunty's sense of modesty...I find to my disappointment, that you appear to be more than adequately covered."
Head between the knees, breathe into the paper bag, in and out, nice and easy (slap, slap), Betty Keira. Oh the Humanity!
I'll be alright. Just a mo'. Was that a pass by a Brighton-ish Expressway? I feel like a Victorian matron whose husband just called the piano supports 'legs' instead of 'limbs'. Get the smelling salts.
In Holland, Penny's examination almost immediately exposes her as a fraud. She remembers everything and has for some time--and she would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you meddling kids and your pesky dog! Her real name is Jacqueline Coster (this is the last time you'll hear it) and she had a spat with her live-in boyfriend, walked out on him and hasn't seen her parents in years.
Penny's Payment (Betty's words) is to put Taro's kittens in a garment bag and his dog on a leash with a heavy metal rod and toss all into a canal. Good thing Alex is such an awesome swimmer. Taro's reaction to the contretemps is much too mild. Just when another hard slap is warranted or a call to the authorities (administrators of the loony bin, I mean), he shrugs it off and awaits her departure. Penny's parthian shot is to mutter, "If I ever get the chance, I'll do you a bad turn." Again, no hard slapping.
With Penny out of the way, the story loses a bit of steam. But we've still got 70 pages to make small talk...
Alex gets a made-up job in Rotterdam and Taro sets a stage for proposal neatly. "You're a darling..." Fireside snogging just begins to get interesting when...Ring! Blast those Dutch telephones! It's big brother. Mother has the measles...If you're not doing anything... What business does a woman in her mid-fifties have getting measles for the first time?!
Taro retreats from emotional scenes and carries her off to the airport the next morning. "I moved heaven and earth to be free to spend [today] with you and here I am, speeding you away at the earliest possible moment." He's dripping with frustration and now I'm thinking of Peter, Paul and Mary. Kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you'll wait for me, hold me like you'll never let me go...etc., etc.
The Un-Incarcerated Snake in the Grass (Penny or Jacqueline, whichever you like) sees her at Waterloo Station waiting for her train and talking to...Blind-to-Social-Cues-Anthony. Oh this is going to turn out well.
Alex shakes off Anthony (who keeps saying something like he'll be down to visit...she can't be bothered to listen--Taro and Mother and Horlicks is swirling in her brain) and arrives home, rolling up her sleeves, fixing invalid meals and hearty meals and cleaning and fetching and missing Taro terribly.
Anthony arrives several days later--because there's nothing more helpful to a crisis than entertaining ex-boyfriends. Like a teenager trying to decline a Saturday night date and finding herself having to be ruder and more blunt as hints sail cleanly over a pimple marked head, Alex decides she can just park him in the sitting room and ignore him where possible. Ding Dong!
Oh for the love of...Taro. Black-browed Taro. I actually like this bit. Taro is angry and jealous and is too far gone to hide it behind a mask of indifference. "I thought that I had been given the right to ask questions of you, Alexandra... I came because I had a letter from Penny...I didn't believe her, but I had to come and see for myself..."
He storms off but not before making himself utterly charming to her father.
Pooh! Suddenly taking a job in Australia or New Zealand or Central Africa (Girlfriend, in a few years Robert Mugabe is going to make that career path non-viable.) seems to make sense.
It takes Aunt Euphemia to sort them out. She invites her back to Snuggie Cottage where the Professor, contrite and darling, tracks her down and proposes in a muddy, windswept garden. Looking forward, Alexandra sees a happy brood of little boys wearing Wellington boots.
Rating: Not as bad as I remembered it. I didn't see Taro giving Penny the benefit of the doubt (as my memory stubbornly clung to) so much or being quite so off-hand with our Miss Dobbs either. A book with retrograde amnesia can't be all bad but I felt that The Mighty Neels was having so much fun with the villainess that she didn't give as much time to Taro and Alexandra as was needed. It did have some lovely bits here and there. So, ho-hum and the cheese board.
Food: Wholesome fish pie (gah), Canard a' l'Orange (orange duck?), smoked eel on toast (mmmm. Just like mama made.), Steak Orloff.
Fashion: Tweeds and sweaters, well-fitting uniforms, red silk jersey dress, Penny's Vogue dress (pale blue wool more than 100 Pounds), ridiculous wool hats and a mile and a half of scarf, leather boots, Wellies.