It is symbolic somehow, that when Theatre Sister Emma Hastings, 24, smashes into a sleek and expensive Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible she is driving a Ford Popular (to be said, rather scathingly: POP-you-lar). Her family, like the battered third-hand Ford, has seen better days and when this tall, vast, red-headed (!) man kicks her bumper it seems a lot more personal than a simple disengagement of dinged fenders.
Her mother thinks he's just dishy.
The Dutch police arrive and she must hand over her identification and passport. Professor Justin Teylingen (40-ish) leafs through it as well (conning her name, profession, birthday, weight and favorite pastimes, ect.) and, for good measure, reads their luggage tags--which I suppose is as good as Googling her. (Which begs the question: Why do so many horror films and rom-cons begin the same way?) The police do not linger and, just by way of doing the bird-witted British ladies a good turn, Justin checks their car, tells them they need a new plug (very cheap) and then writes a note in Dutch telling the mechanic to give the Ford a quick overhaul on his dime.
Talk about a meet-cute.
They see each other again at a concert (which Justin happened to mention would be nearby and very good). See, though it was all sold out, the box office just happened to have two returned tickets (very cheap!) in great seats which happen to be right next to the Professor, his aunt and a gorgeous blonde! Will wonders never cease?
Emma is pleased to be looking her best but can't be comfortable with Justin. He insinuated that she is a bad driver, after all, and who is that blonde!?
Back in England she is once again on duty in a Southampton hospital. Nursing wasn't really what she wanted out of life--she wanted to go to medical school (1972? Go Betty!) but father died and her younger sister's fees had to be paid...However, she finds that she likes her life--lots of work and a great rapport with the rest of the staff, she's even had a couple of chances to be married. Emma is not without choices.
And then Justin Teylingen lands in her lap (and being a Betty Neels book, this is sadly figurative). He's there for a few months to demonstrate new surgical procedures--a circumstance attributable to genuine (not engineered) and remarkable fate.
They work well together and she is happy to notice that he is an excellent surgeon (which I have to believe for Betty Neels was way more important than the 'rich' in RDD--I can image an RDD in straitened financial circumstances but I can't imaging him botching a surgery for lack of skill).
One day she passes the hospital forecourt to meet her little sister Kitty ('cast in a more vivid mold' than Emma and attending medical school...Do you want to kick her now?) and hands off the Ford Popular keys. Who was the pretty girl who drove away in your car?
Justin wonders why Kitty had to travel from London to Southampton just to pick up a battered old car and drive it another hour and a half home to their mother's.
And so you walk until the car is returned?
I have good legs.
Yes, you have, quite delightful...
Trust Justin. He can see a church by daylight.
He gets Emma to himself for tea one day and, to her, seems full of questions about Kitty. Naturally he's just trying to ferret out why Kitty got to go to med school and older sister had to murder ambition but Emma doesn't know that. Hmm, she wonders later, why does it bother me that he would fall for Kitty? That dawning realization had to call a blitz and sack the quarterback on her way into theatre.
It's going to be awkward now but this is one of those times that being swathed from head to toe is going to work in Emma's favor--the better to hide her feelings...
When Kitty returns the POPular Emma is chagrined to see Justin and Little Willy (who is an occasional date of the variety to call her 'old girl' and comment unfavorably on her looks) being captivated by the delightful Kitty. Little Willy isn't just captivated--he's waving the white flag of his bachelorhood at that vivid medical student.
After an on-call midnight surgery, the plight of the victim (lovelorn bridge-jumper) prompts Justin, Little Willy and Emma to philosophize on love.
Emma: Of course you know the last line--'But after one such love, can love no more.' He must have loved her very much.
Justin: Men do--most men. A woman--their own particular woman--is so woven into the tapestry of their lives that she can't be cut out.
Not the time I would have chosen to make a pass but...
He is invited to spend a weekend in the country with Emma's mother (and spend the night's in Emma's bed!...("I'm not that kind of RDD. I'm not that kind of RDD.")...while Emma bunks with her sister) and between the two of them they contrive to keep Emma in the dark until it's too late to throw a spanner in the works. Emma does a lot of chores (why isn't Kitty worth a darn?) and is kissed by the oven door and then finds Mrs. Coffin (elderly owner of an outlying cottage) hanging by her fingernails above a precipice. Emma doesn't have the strength to pull her out of the old well by herself and can only hang on to her wrists and hope for rescue. Justin, following after his lady love, creaks through the garden gate and hears Emma shouting for help. His face is chalk white with worry.
Kitty puts Emma to bed and promises to do some chores the next day (well, finally!) and then, when Justin takes everyone out to dinner Kitty tells her sister, "...sometimes you look prettier than I do." I'm doing mental gymnastics to turn this into some sort of compliment but, like a musical coda, it just keeps repeating back on itself. ('Look at me!--the vivid sister!')
Betty Neels wants me to like Kitty and to find her charming and sweet but I have a feeling that, if I'm using Winter Wedding parameters, she wouldn't dope her sister's children with Seconol probably but I totally buy that she would dump her twins on a sister for months at a time so that she could be with her husband. Kitty is a little spoiled and the thought doesn't even pass her mind that co-opting every man in sight and letting Emma have the dregs is catty behavior. But maybe The Great Betty is being wiser than I gave her credit for--showing us that while Kitty is fine, Emma is splendid. That Kitty becomes interested in and matched to Little Willy is sheer dumb luck.
Justin visits the country again wherein we get a wonderful moment when she eats currants that he picks for her, and he calls her a stopgap (ew.) and she plucks up the courage to ask who Saskia is. Saskia? Even I can hardly remember who Saskia is! This question feels like a parcel that's been left at the lost and found for weeks on end and then finally retrieved.
Justin seems to be making actual tentative overtures of courtship toward Emma when he asks her to keep the evening free for 'us'. She gets a stomach ache and has to put it off and Justin, a little put out, twits her about standing him up. ('Sulking, Emma?') And he nags her and nags her and nags her. (Understandable if you consider how precarious his position is--if he acts too hastily all might be lost--and how he chafes at not throwing Emma over his shoulder and making her marry him.)
Boy, does he feel a heel when she turns green and begins to shake during a surgery. He ruthlessly finishes up with the delicate operation and then scoops her out of her position and off to a gurney--holding her hand as she drifts into unconsciousness.
Her appendix is removed and this is an excuse for our hero to visit her while she wears a succession of ever more adorable night gowns. Sure Miss Emma is wan and weepy and an appendix is not exactly a romantic organ but there's nothing like an abdominal complaint to turn a young man's head.
Him: So, I like have this killer mansion that you could recuperate at.
Her: For all three weeks?!
Him: Yeah. You'll love chillin' at my pad...with your sister...and my cousin Saskia...and my totally hip Aunt Wilhelmina...
Her: And you will be...?
Him: Dude, incommunicado.
I know, I'd be like, 'I plan to be in my delectable PJs as often as possible and if you're not there, what's the point?'
But she goes to Holland anyway to be babysat by Saskia the Fine, Kitty the Clueless (seriously, you'd think, given her future as a doctor, her powers of deduction would be a squinch higher so that she'd smell romance in the air and give up the freaking Shotgun seat to Emma for once), and Aunt Wilhelmina the Formidable. Justin, beyond conducting her on the Home Tour of Everlasting Love and playing a game of billiards (wherein he discovers even one more thing to love about Emma), is nowhere to be found.
By the end of her visit Emma has learned to love Holland, is still not sure what Justin feels for Saskia (who is utterly blameless and fine), and receives Justin guardedly.
No matter, he kisses her anyway. And then asks her to wait for him while he's...in Utrecht (which here is code for 'Belgium').
While he's away, Aunt Wilhelmina (his only real relative left since his older brother and sister were killed in the Dutch resistance and his parents died) cheerfully tears Emma's dreams to shreds and offers to call a taxi. Beware the Aunt too willing to call taxis, I say. And Emma, understanding at last that she was a 'stopgap and 'distraction' to Justin while he was in Southampton and waiting for Saskia to marry him, to her everlasting credit, refuses to bolt. Justin asks her to wait and she will--but she'll also make sure that that taxi is waiting for her.
Imagine Justin's feelings, if you will, returning home from Utrecht-Belgium to what he hopes is Young Love's Dream only to be greeted by a brittle and uncommunicative Emma and and Aunt that won't leave them alone to get down to brass tacks.
He drives her to the airport with Aunt Wilhelmina prattling on about the history of windmills in the backseat, mystified and hurt.
Fast forward a week or two.
Miss Emma is washing up the theatre tools at the end of a long day when an unsterile Justin breezes through the swing doors. She can't go anywhere until she gets everything antiseptically cleared away--which suits him just fine as they have a lot of ground to cover before he mucks her up with germs and things.
'I think I shall talk better if there is a the width of the theatre between us.' He smiled tenderly at her and she dropped a string of forceps back into the sink with a little clang. 'Be sure and warn me when you are finished,' he urged her gently.
Justin had finally squeezed the truth out of Aunt Wilhelmina like a grapefruit. Gordian knots are untangled and kissing. Emma keeps her head long enough to ask where Aunt Willie and Saskia will live since they're about to be homeless.
Rating: Boeuf en Croute! I really liked this book--though it does have some cons.
I didn't give this a higher rating because I didn't think that The Great Betty really settled Emma into a deeply consistent character--she is initially described as ordinary-looking but charming and a collector of dates and proposals on the strength of her charm but then she settles into a much more staid and Cinderella-y personality (which I have no quibble with--but it does upset the narrative). Also, Emma's worry over Saskia came out of nowhere--she wasn't fussed about her at all until Justin showed that he wasn't interested in Kitty. (Of course, once in Holland all that arms-about-the-neck flinging that Saskia does to Justin rather fog up her windshields...
Justin was so great--kissing her mother, matchmaking her sister, paying off her automotive debts...
Mother was a peach--equal parts wisdom and slyness.
Emma was full of courage and shyness. The bit with the dodgy appendix was brilliant.
Food: She eats Fraises Romanoff, skips Irish stew because she hates it, is given a salad by a cheap date, is denied a steak and offered some chicken when Justin does some sexist dinner ordering...They have lobster cocktail, trifle, coq au vin, use brown sugar for the coffee (hey, coffee drinkers, is this unusual?), and have chocolate souffle and custard tart. They drink Campari twice.
Fashion: She wears a green and white checked dress that makes her look ten years younger, posseses 2 pink nighties, and one with blue daisies and a pink ruffled dressing gown. She also is purported to look smashing in a brown and white print dress with smocked bodice and billowing sleeves and another coral pink silk shirtwaist. There is also an unspeakable outfit that I blame on the 70s: Orange crepe with an apron top and a white blouse.