Monday, July 23, 2012

Midsummer Star - Reprise

Midsummer Star was one of the last Neels that I read, so it hasn't made it through my rotation very often.  Partly due to The Nicky.  I have a hard time reading about Celine and the married man. I do love the B & B segments (except for The Nicky), I even like the idea of Celine working and living in Bethnal Green - a bit rougher neighborhood than the typical Araminta or Olivia is subjected to. I just keep stubbing my toes on The Nicky.  You might want to put on some work boots for this one. For those of you who like a bit more angsti-ness than I, this one might be right up your alley.
-Betty Debbie

My copy of Midsummer Star is falling apart--the pages fluttering out like pieces of our heroine's ragged heart.

Celine Baylis, 22, is a gorgeous dark-haired beauty with years of theoretical education and 'finishing' behind her. She speaks French like a native, whips together food like a Cordon Bleu, looks awfully decorative and lives like Sleeping Beauty in a charming tumble-down Elizabethan Manor. But, as evidenced by her awful name (Celine just screams Neels villainess to me), her parents are not to be trusted.The Colonel (a dreamy type with a sporadic parade-ground manner) and his wife ('My, what a lot of flowers there are to arrange!') have dug themselves into a debt crisis. Their assets are these:
  • The manor. Yes, this 10 bedroom house has damp patches and needs repairs but if you squint just right and fail to acquaint yourself with the furnace (ha! It doesn't have a furnace, silly.) it is charming.
  • A couple of old retainers--cooking and butler/gardening. They're paying them no matter what.
  • A well-stocked wine cellar that The Colonel mothers like a broody hen.
  • An extensive kitchen garden--producing fresh delectables at little cost. The garden also has a good deal of flowers.
  • One newly minted entrepreneurial daughter--passionately determined to make a go of running a Bed and Breakfast. ('If Mrs. Ham can, so can I.')
Act I: The Bed and Breakfast or Mother Can Do the Flowers or Celine the Magnificent
This is my favorite part. Once Celine (a name which is probably not too bad in real life but fits like a bad suit on a Neels heroine) understands the magnitude of her parents' financial straits, she throws off the young Swiss-finished lady and rolls up her sleeves. Celine pitches crud up in the kitchen

With an unflinching desire to live life as it is and not the way she wants it to be that had me cheering she tells the family solicitor, 'I've been doing nothing for a long time...I think I'll try something else for a change.'
In no time they've opened up the rooms, worked out menus and rates (Six pounds for a night, dinner will be three pounds fifty and extra for drinks) and had a few visitors.
And then one day, when she's strolling gently past the front drive she gets malaria. Okay. Not malaria. But some disease that transforms her personality and gives her a brain fever. Let's call it...I'm just spit-balling here...(snaps fingers)...The Nicky.
Celine instantly succu
mbs to The Nicky. He is with his parents on holiday and plans to stay a few days! Celine's joy has little to do with swelling the family bank account and more to do with being rushed off her feet by this magnificent malarial specimen.
Editorial Note:

I think of falling in love with Nicky as the Old Celine's last hurrah. She's not in love with the Malady, per se, but in love with this languid, cosseted life she used to live. And though she works like a Trojan, I think she's got some lingering longing for her former self. New Celine is rushed off her feet, running after guests and getting dinner. Nicky takes trays out of her hands and strolls with Old Celine in the garden. (Of course, New Celine takes a basket along with her to collect some peas while she's at it.)
And then his father has a stroke. (Maybe from hanging out with The Nicky?)
The Nicky is less than useless, leaving his father to be cared for by strangers, while he lolls about the scenery and makes passes at Celine. Papa Seymour (The Nicky's father), meanwhile, calls threadily for 'Oliver'.
Oliver Seymour, Nicky's cousin, is an up-right, up-tight, do-right bore according to The Nicky--he's a virtuous prig but they'll have to send for him.
Celine is up a ladder in filthy clothes painting a drainpipe that she's hauled into place (no lolling here!) when she meets the Odious Oliver. Deep in love (read: 'Deep in do-do') with the Malarial Nicky, she feels like she needs to adopt his attitudes and loyalties--hauling her opinions into line with his in much the same way as that wayward drainpipe. So she sees what Nicky sees: A smug and virtuous man bent on showing The Nicky up as the cheap imitation he is.
Oliver loves her at once.

Act II: Young Love's Dream Dashed
Oliver steps into the situation with an un-Nicky-like aplomb. Nicky is only able snatch moments with Celine--whispering about weekends and...marriage...of course he means marriage if weekends away are involved--before Oliver breaks things up. And then, when Nicky and his parents leave and all the bills are settled (by Oliver), Celine receives a crushing blow.
Oliver: I noticed you and Nicky were making googly-eyes at one another.
Celine: We mean to be married. What would an old bachelor like you know about a divine love like ours?
Oliver: Only that it would be illegal in all fifty Colonies.
Malarial Nicky is married.
It can't be true, thinks Celine as she spirals into a fevered delusion. But when The Nicky returns, she (after much equivocation) tells him what Oliver said. Well?
Oh. That. Divorce is easy these days...let's have a're naive...let me grab your arm menacingly...
Oliver makes a sudden rescue and Celine takes off to cry her eyes out.
When Oliver does track her down he offers a shoulder to cry on and a job. She (stupidly!) wants to know if Nicky would really want to divorce his wife and find her again. (I almost can't forgive this much idiocy.) And then she calls Oliver avuncular because he must not be interested in women. He took this unflinchingly on the chin.

Act III: The Fetid Swamp of Bethnal Green or Celine Gets a Job and a Flatlet
Oliver arranges everything (even the installation of Mother Baylis' much younger sister as Celine's temporary replacement) and before you know it, Celine is living above a paediatric clinic in the rough part of London--Bethnal Green in the East End.
The point is that absence and activity will make her forget The Nicky but I keep getting annoyed at the subtle implication that she's not up to the job. She bravely started a semi-thriving Bed and Breakfast with limited resources and a willingness to work, people! Don't tell me that she's incapable of swabbing baby vomit or de-funking toddlers.
My one criticism of Oliver is that, just as The Nicky said, he is always right. This would be rather tiresome to live with and you find yourself wishing that Celine would be mugged and strangled on her way to church just to prove to him that establishing her in the middle of a slum might be a bad idea.
She does not get strangled.
Instead, on her day off, she meets The Nicky. And she has tea with him. And she listens as he pours his honeyed disease into her ears. But back in her flatlet she isn't quite so happy. Maybe dating a married man would be a bad idea!
Oliver, seeing the need to bolster Celine's resolve, makes some effort to fill up her free time and she spends a wonderful day with him in the country and then at his home. They go to Cats that evening and stumble across Daphne--Nicky's wife...and mother of his child! 'You knew--that they were going to be there. You did it deliberately...'
'Yes, I did it deliberately.'

Editorial Note:
Recently legendary screen actress Patricia Neal died and I've been going through a lot of her obits. She suffered a series of horrible strokes during one of her pregnancies and her rehabilitation was attributed to her husband, author Roald Dahl, being a horrible SOB (not a stretch for him, I hear) and making her button her own shirts if it took her an hour. This is exactly Oliver's approach. Nicky is a disease to be purged from her system and Celine won't get better by being coddled. But don't think that Oliver enjoys it.
Nicky isn't going to stop pestering her (though her fever has finally broken and she's so over him) so Oliver, tossing over his shoulder on the way to stabilize a diabetic child, says, 'A propos Nicky--we could get engaged.'
She agrees to talk about it (intending to ask if he's suffering under malarial delusions) and, coming upon him waiting for her to change--sitting on the bottom stair, reading a newspaper--she is blindingly certain that she's in love with Oliver.
So, now it's a foregone conclusion that she'll agree to an engagement of convenience. Delightfully we learn that her middle name is Petronella (please don't print that in the newspaper, she thinks) and his Christian names are Oliver Edmund Frederick. They dance in the line of duty and kiss in the line of duty and if his embraces are more warm than is strictly warranted than it must be attributed to his skills as an actor.
On one weekend they visit his aunt and uncle (Nicky's parents) and run into Daphne (quite bitter over her husband's continual philandering and in a mood to pour her heart out to Celine) and Nicky (who hisses at Celine, 'Am I supposed to believe that this is a fairytale romance?...You'll be telling me next that you love him.' Celine's quiet and heartfelt, 'I do' wipes the smug expression off his face).
So that's Nicky taken care of. But we still have thirty pages left and we have to fill them with something...Ah, a red herring! Just the thing. One of Oliver's friends tells Celine that she was sure Oliver was waiting to marry her daughter Hilary. This is just like your GPS telling you to take the I-405 North exit to get to the airport when you know that to take the I-405 South exit will get you there sooner. Detours ahead!

Act IV: Hie to Holland or The Little Italian Dress Takes a Trip
And then they go to Holland because he has a business trip and wants to have her meet more friends. She gets a chance to air her French and likes her hosts enormously. He catches her in the garden one afternoon, kisses her thoroughly and gently reminds her that they are engaged. But of course, that only makes her stiffen (instead of relent and reveal which was what he was hoping for) and, as he is a seismograph where she is concerned, he lets her go and the moment is lost.

Act V: A Spot of Snogging
Back in England, she plucks up her courage and corners the good doctor. She has heard that Hilary is a charming girl and, finding the selfless love of New Celine more satisfying (albeit, more painful) than the blind rapture of Old Celine, gives him back his ring and breaks the engagement.
Just by chance she meets Hilary in the street and sees that she's not a day over 14. Uh-oh. Or, if I may employ the more nuclear, Scooby-Doo-ism: Ruh-Roh.
Forces (by 'forces' I mean 'A very determined and angry Oliver') keep her from getting a minute alone with Oliver to explain and she finds herself being told by his butler that he's gone away for a few days. Tears!
And thank heaven for tears because Pym (the butler) calls Oliver to let him know he was making innocent young ladies burst into lamentations on his doorstep. That's why, when Celine is swinging gently in her Elizabethan garden under her Elizabethan tree, Oliver walks around the corner of the Elizabethan house. He's there to see what the fuss is about.
There's no fuss. Just kissing and disclosures and more kissing
The End

Rating: This was a darling little book. It's not one of my favorites (as it becomes mired in the swamp of Bethnal Green rather securely) but it mostly works and the two main characters have much to recommend them. Oliver is always right and serious and dependable. Celine (ugh, I hate her name) is fresh and plucky and hard working...and as dumb as a post. The only part I don't like much is when she's trying to justify seeing Nicky again even after finding out about his wife. I hated it, but then, I think I hated it because it was uncomfortable to read...not because it wasn't an understandable feeling for Celine to have. When she was behaving stupidly I would think to myself, 'She single-handedly rescued her family from ruin' and say it over and over in my head. She never does get the recognition she deserves for such an awesome thing. I give this a happy boeuf en croute.

Food: Cornflakes, kipper fillets, lamb chops, syllabub (twice!), egg and mushroom flan (ick.), fresh peas are pushed to the side of the plate (that's what I do with my peas too), Yorkshire pudding, roast beef, trifle, wild duck stuffed with apples, ice cream, strawberries coming out of your ears, Boeuf Stroganoff and lobster.

Fashion: Celine meets Oliver wearing paint-stained jeans and a cotton sweater. She could practically drive to Rome on the mileage she gets out of a 'little Italian dress'. She also wears a dim apricot silk and a faded cotton Liberty dress.