My youngest pledge recently graduated from high school. It was a big deal to me on many, many levels. Many.
During his final semester, he took a required class: CWP (Current World Problems). One of the assignments he had, had to do with getting on a petition website called Change.org. If you haven't heard of it, here's a little blurb from their site:
Evidently, anyone who wants to, can start a petition on this site. Will it be you?
Where am I going with this? If any book in the canon deserves a better title, a more descriptive title, and a new cover, this one does. Who's with me? Together, we can make a difference!
Viva la Revolution!
Grrr. Yet another name for a book that fails to disclose a hint of the awesomeness beyond. I did a Google-image search for the cover and no less than four other authors had the same title. The Great Betty herself had three other titles that began with 'Never'. In the interests of disclosing the delights within, might I suggest another? (cough* feelfreetousethecoverart*cough)
No, I jest. Isobel is a little starchy in her neat blue uniform and she's not about to let herself be pushed around by this disapproving, if hot, hot, kill-joy.
Dr. Thomas Winter is as cold as his name. He lives in a gorgeous and frigid ice palace and takes one look at the young woman warming up his sitting room and just knows she's trouble. But the pickings are slim and he needs someone fast. His old Nanny, Mrs. Olbinski, lives in Poland (in 1983!) and since her husband has died she needs to be smuggled out of the country.
No, not smuggled. (Dang it! I had just jury-rigged a diversionary device made from sugarless gum, a book of matches and a men's XXL wool suit coat.) There are papers and processes but they should just be able to sail out of Gdansk. And so, leaving her widowed mother (and public school fee-needing shadow sibling, Bobby) behind, she heads to their first stop, Sweden, with Dr. Winter.
On the way there, she attempts to solve the enigma wrapped in a riddle that is her employer. 'I expect you're married.' His look was meant to freeze her bones, only she wasn't that kind of girl. She returned his stare with twinkling eyes. 'You expect wrongly, Miss Barrington.' He looked down his patrician nose. 'Perhaps it would be better if I were to address you as Nurse.' 'Yes, Dr. Winter.' The twinkle was so disconcerting that he looked away still frowning.
And their relationship goes on from there. He attempts to be quelling (which she regrets as she sees the warm and kind man he can be while they stay with his friends) and she just refuses to be anything other than herself--restful, full of common sense and able to meet any circumstances.
And then they set off for Poland...in the midst of The Cold War.
|Mr. Olbinski was a Polish dissident possibly like 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner (and mustachioed babe) Lech Walesa|
Perhaps you are wondering what The Great Betty had to say on the subject of the Cold War. Answer: Next to nothing. We get an entire Polish interlude wherein the words communism, Cold War, Soviet Russia, Iron Curtain and NATO are not mentioned. The closest we get to any concrete discussion of the repressive regime is the factoid that Nanny's husband was a dissident (and lived a nice long life and presumably died of natural causes) and this little gem from Isobel's mother: 'Poland? But isn't that,' she paused, 'well, eastern Europe.' Well, yes, Mrs. Barrington. It was. It still is, as a matter of fact. And the Poles themselves? La Neels essentially compresses the lyrics of 'Russians Love Their Children Too' into a quip about how well the British are liked in Poland. (Just go with it.)
We get the teensiest glimpse of a bona fide apparatchik when someone, who doesn't even have the decency to sound much like a commie goon, comes to the shabby apartment to tell Dr. Winter that Nanny's papers are not entirely ready.
They do some sight-seeing to pass the time and (we find out later) Thomas buys an amber necklace that Isobel admires.
Editorial Note: I don't know what was going through his head at this point. I like to think that, even then, he recognized her as someone special (they do share a hand squeeze over some sublime organ music) but I can't quite bring myself to believe that he's already been bitten by the love bug.
They eventually return to Sweden and Isobel has a chance to showcase her exceptionally good cooking skills, formidable work ethic and ability to bond with old ladies.
And then they're back in London. Almost as soon as they've taken their coats off, a whirl of blonde and pampered loveliness flings herself at Thomas. Meet Miss Ella Stokes. Ouch, you're thinking. Isn't she a bit beneath his dignity? Yes, she is. But he's not shopping for a wife and Ella is at least manageable. The doctor is well able to control his feelings around her so she's suitable as far as maintaining his lonely and independent existence goes.
Nanny proceeds over the next week to develop a thorough disapproval of that immodest 'saucebox' and an abiding attachment to Isobel--who treats Nanny like a treasured relation instead of a paycheck. And for her part, Nanny can see that Thomas and Isobel are made for each other.
Thomas is 'preoccupied'--a clue so subtle that if you blink you will miss it. Nanny has told him to mend his wicked ways and get married (anyone but the saucebox!) and he's grappling with feelings with approach attraction to that impertinent but warm-hearted nurse. What to do? What to do?
'Do you have a boyfriend, Isobel?'
That did not just come out of his own mouth, he must be thinking. She answers him calmly enough but he's spooked enough to be gone before Isobel has to leave in a few days.
And that's when Isobel realizes that she's in love with him.
Nanny's in tears. (You have to put on your detective hat to realize that she's been sure that Thomas and Isobel would get together and if he's taking off now...Hankies!)
But Isobel sees him one more time before he goes. 'You feel I should have wished you goodbye, Isobel? By all means let us do the thing properly, then.' And he kisses her into next week.
Fast forward a week or two. Thomas has sent a parting gift with a stiff little note--the amber necklace which she wears beneath her blouses. She's just finishing another maddening private nursing job when Thomas shows up to collect her from Mother's house. Nanny has been contracting pneumonia. Thomas has been wrestling his demons. And when Mrs. Barrington asks'How long will Isobel be with you?' it is all he can do not to enunciate slowly, 'For.ev.er.'She nurses Nanny and they are eventually moved to his 'cottage' (read: des res, Hat tip, Betty Magdalen) by the sea for further recuperation--an excuse for Thomas to surprise her in a bikini and surprise her with Mother and Bobby (oh yeah, Bobby). Everyone is thrilled to bits with everyone else and Mrs. Barrington and Nanny are already sewing baby-layettes out of daydreams. (Heck, so is Thomas at this point.)
But the next month isn't a very fun place to be. Thomas has gone on a prolonged vacation (presumably with Ella in the Caribbean--Doesn't he know how near America that is?!) and Isobel returns home to find her mother laid out on the floor with a stroke. She grows thin with worry over money and nursing her mother around the clock and longing for Thomas to come when she knows that he won't.
He finally does and ruthlessly shames her into letting him admit Mother into a rehabilitation hospital. (I'm sure he hates doing it but plain speaking is the only thing that will force her to accept the help he is dying to give.) And when Isobel has rested herself at Thomas' house she sets off to find another job--hopefully one that deals with night shifts or mental patients so it will pay well.
Her next case is a twofer: an insomniac head case that provides her ample opportunity to think. To forget him was going to be impossible, but to encourage thoughts of him was just plain stupid. Thomas comes breathing hellfire down on her head for taking 12-hour-shifts. He confiscates her pets and Isobel's control slips enough to suck her into an Ella-induced death spiral (Pull up! Pull up!) wherein she babbles about honeymoons and best wishes and a lot of other old trot.
|Isobel's Death Spiral|
Because he loves her.
They seal the deal on a hillside overlooking her childhood home (which he has just repurchased for Mother and what's-his-name to live in).
Rating: I didn't remember loving this one all that much when I first read it--I think I was thrown a little off-balance by how unusual it is (Polish dissidents!), I had read Nanny as a more dour personality than she is and maybe I'd missed the subtle but numerous clues that Thomas' heart was lost early on. So, I'm not speaking lightly when say that after this read this might be my new favorite Neels. (I left a ton of wonderfulness out of the review.)
Thomas is deeply lonely (lonely enough to undertake a trip to Poland to bring back an old Nanny and lonely enough to tolerate Ella and Her Dance of the Seven Veils Shtick at all) and doesn't quite believe that he needs a wife (which is why we're okay with Ella being so awful...Thomas wasn't looking for deep and informative 7-part docudramas. Instead, was channel surfing and she was the midnight infomercial he tuned into. ('Set it and Forget it!)). The Great Betty was so consistent with him--he never, late in the book, says anything like, 'He really didn't know why he couldn't stop thinking about her...', negating all those signs he's given that he is being purposeful. (And you know La Neels did that a time or two.) Nope. He's in love and maybe flounders for a bit but that's as far as it goes. And yes, Ella is draped like a stinking red herring all over the place but, aside from using her to get a little response from Isobel, her clinging is explained as just that.
Isobel is perfect--she's plain enough to never consider chasing Thomas (so, oddly, had she been prettier, she never would have got her foot in the door) and never loses her nerve or common sense. Sure, she can't bring herself to be so twinkling at him after she realizes that he's the one for her (being caught in a never-to-be-reciprocated-love would put the damper on anyone's sense of humor), but she doesn't let her feelings for him send her back into any sort of shell. And if he needs telling off, she's still happy to do it.
Mother and Nanny are darling--watching the proceedings with enough knowing smiles and indiscretion to let the reader in on their secret.
Bobby is a shadow sibling par excellence. (Providing the important plot device of being a financial drain with no pesky hanging about.)
Lashings of whipped cream, for this Betty.
Food: There was a lot but here is some of the more interesting offerings--Sprats, pancakes with jam, Aquavit 'for the men', smörgåsbord, hot beet soup, crayfish, pork knuckle, vastkustsallad, seafood pancakes and apricot flan.
Fashion: A coffee-colored skirt paired with a shrimp pink blouse, a Liberty print blouse, a cream linen dress which douses her coloring, neat blue uniforms, and her treasured amber necklace that she tucks away inside her bodice (which is such a wonderful metaphor for the whole thing). Ella is a 'vision' in a sky-blue suede skirt and blouse ('its buttons undone to what Isobel considered to be a quite indecent level'). She also dons a sheer silk blouse with nothing on underneath but her flesh!
Highlights for Isobel are the bikini (which I don't even approve of in real life but thank The Great Betty for on my knees) and a faded but flattering sundress. The lowlight is when he walks into her house after mother's stroke to see her wearing a plastic pinny with 'All Hands on Deck' across the front.