I do love the bits wherein Katrina rolls up her sleeves and works in the fields - it takes me back to my youth. For some reason Springfield, Oregon hadn't heard of migrant workers back then...so we kids between the ages of about 8-16 picked beans and strawberries for a pittance. Picking strawberries was horrible backbreaking work out in full sun. Beans were much more lucrative - and shadier (the pole beans were in rows about 2-ish feet apart and about 5 or 6 feet tall). I know now why my parents encouraged us to work in the fields: Work ethics! Earning money for our own school clothes! Free babysitting! The
First the title. An Innocent Bride. Ho hum. A total throw-away. Harlequin clearly didn't know what to do with Betty Neels at this point and was trying to signal readers with semaphore flags, neon signs and traffic cones that this book wouldn't have anybody mucking about in Brighton. But it makes our heroine sound a simp...which she is not. No, the book should have been titled The Moss Rose or Aunt Thirza's Legacy or Love and Leukaemia...
Katrina Gibbs, 24 with masses of dark hair, is sprawling across the country road in all her splendid glory. A motorcyclist driving on the wrong side of the road (Horrid American? But I repeat myself...) has knocked her over and smashed her bike.
Enter the great socking Bentley.
Professor Simon Glenville, 'knocking 40' (39), haematologist at St. Aldrick's and rescuer of fair, young maidens happens upon her, plucks her up and carries her back to Rose Cottage where she lives with her aunt Miss Thirza Gibbs--a retired girl's school headmistress and a woman of prickly disposition and rigid principles who never heard a 'Ms.' in her life and would have given it a frigid stare if she had.
Katrina and Simon and Aunt Thirza get off to such a rough start that it's as though they, all three of them, were hapless British bicycles and Fate an ill-mannered American motorcycle.
When Aunt Thirza (an actual Hebrew name meaning pleasantness and delight...instead of ironclad and unchangeable) is referred to a doctor is it really any surprise that her condition needs the leading haematologist in the history of the British realm?
Naturally, she is going to die. And naturally, no one tells her so. Instead of telling the grown woman that she might die of lymphatic leukaemia at any time they tell her she has Anaemia--a universal catch-all disease that will mask the symptoms of her failing health without alarming her in any way. They don't send you to medical school for years on end to tell the naked truth, evidently.
This gives Katrina and Simon an excuse to meet again and for her to weep (again--the American motorcyclist was upsetting) all over his cloth hankies (which she promises to launder and give back).
Simon brings Aunt Thirza, whom he has decided he rather likes, a moss rose for her garden that is already in bud even though it isn't the season to transplant that sort of thing. Dear me. Plants and fatal diseases. If you're thinking of O. Henry's The Last Leaf, well then, so am I. But we don't have to wait until the last blossom withers on the bush for Aunt Thirza to shuffle off her mortal coil. She passes on in idyllic tranquility, possibly thinking that those iron pills were woefully inadequate and intending to pen a stern letter of rebuke to the head of the NHS.
Simon is off on a lecture tour and Katrina finds that during the funeral hubbub she misses his presence most. A head scratcher.
When he does finally find out he hares off to Rose Cottage in time for tears and mucked up lawn hankerchiefs (with attendant and inevitable promises of laundering). He has sensibly brought a meal from (prepare yourself for the best homehelp name ever) Mrs. Peach. He is unable to pin Katrina down on her future plans and as he leaves his parthian shot is to tell her not to marry a fortune hunter.
Fortune hunter. (Snort.) That would require a fortune at the very least, no? Katrina has a few hundred pounds, Rose Cottage, the extensive kitchen garden and...and a fat lot of good it does her. Aunt Thirza, though lovely enough to provide a home for the orphaned 12-year-old (a plane crash carried off the poor parents. Possibly the plane also carried a oily South American gigolo and a run-away Dutch wife needing to be offed for a future Neels novel?), did not exactly launch her wee chick out of the nest with bankable skills.
In a sensible manner, Katrina decides to become a field laborer by day and a respectable lady of leisure by late-afternoon. Aunt Thirza, mindful of proprieties, would have approved. Simon does not.
Coming upon Katrina while dropping Maureen (oh, have I not mentioned that bit of under-rock ooze? Just wait.) at the manor, he grasps one of her work-roughened hands and presents his findings. '...working on a farm, Katrina?...Grubbing potatoes, picking peas and strawberries?' Oh for the love of...What is he, Sherlock Holmes?
And now for Maureen--bright as a penny and twice as cheap. She is a doctor on his medical team--recently joined--and has sights set on Simon. Any actual meddling she does is fairly incidental. A wee spot of water muddying is all. But, in An Innocent Bride, we are privy to the Machinations of Maureen wherein the villainess plots to annex the dear doctor with false displays of keenness, sympathy, helplessness, charity, distress, unreliable cars and an unbelievable cluelessness about the world of public transport. Neither Simon nor Katrina are ever over-vexed by them (though Katrina does think that Maureen is a front-runner for the hand of Fair Simon due to his willingness to shuttle her about) but it is very entertaining to watch her try so hard.
Maureen meets Katrina (always the correct niece of Miss Thirza) running the bottle stall at the village fete. Of course Maureen wins something. 'I always win.' Well, dust off your cosmic irony, kitten. When this hits the fan, Katrina is going to get the most delightful case of schadenfreude ever.
In the mean time, Simon cooks up a plot. He has a little patient with leukaemia (not the same kind as Aunt Thirza) who needs a rest in the country and he also has Katrina desperately in need of agricultural-grade hand cream and a good manicure. As quick as Bob's your uncle he's got little Tracy (with mother Molly) living with Katrina all financed by the lightening fast and flexible bureaucracy of the NHS!
Seriously, she swallows it. Two birds, one stone.
Tracy gives Simon just the reason he needs to keep visiting. (He's always hiding behind cancer victims to do his courting but just go with it.) He does get her alone for a date at Stourhead and a spot of canoodling but this is a rarity.
Instead, the village grapevine pairs Maureen and Simon. 'But he needs a wife like me!' thinks Katrina. Will you look at that. Imagine leaving a dawning realization lying about where just anyone can trip over it...
Little Tracy is deemed 'well enough' to move out. Katrina finds a job as a part-time librarian/seller of home-grown produce. Things settle.
And then Simon tells her that he's in love with her and...shhhhhh, baby, baby, shhhhhhhh...he'd just like to drop in now and then. Shhhhhhh. 'No, don't say anything, just bear it in mind.'
Don't mess things up by thinking she should have set him straight right then and there. There's another 30 pages to go before the contract is fulfilled.
A fire at the manor more firmly roots Katrina's awesomeness and Maureen's deviousness in our imaginations.
A storm occurs in which Katrina is the teensiest bit weenie.
Simon carries her off to his parents' house (He has parents?!) where he introduces her as their future daughter-in-law.
Proposal. (Ahem. The bit about the cart and the horse applies, methinks.)
A rather nice wedding follows wherein she carries a bouquet of moss roses (awww, Aunt Thirza) and Maureen is banished to India.
Rating: As a whole this book is just somewhere in the middle. The best bits revolved around the horrid Maureen. It's as though La Neels is finally giving us chapter and verse on How Shallow, Awful Girl Nabs Rich Kind Doctor thus filling in the back-story on almost all Engaged RDD plots. Why would a nice well-to-do doctor get himself caught by the Vapid Undead? Refer to the Maureen template and footnotes.
Aunt Thirza's death is handled beautifully. When I die, I'd like to go that way.
The theme is also a winner. Katrina, brought up rigidly by a circumspect spinster, is bound by Aunt Thirza's formality to express her love in a sort of Remains of the Day repressed smolder.
So, I give it a Treacle Tart. It's not brilliant but it does have some unique touches.
Food: eggs, potted shrimps, rack of lamb, rhubarb fool (how can you turn down a rhubarb fool?), almond buscuits, farmhouse cake, orangeade, lemonade, bacon and egg pie, cheese straws, fish cakes, smoked salmon, tiny pancakes with chopped chicken, cold meat and salad, bad sherry, good wine, cucumber and orange salad.
Fashion: Dateless beige coat, jersey dress (!), his cashmere sweater (The Great Neels fails to sell me on the idea of our heroes in sweaters), cream and amber crepe, a positively life-saving rose-patterned frock.