Monday, December 20, 2010

Roses For Chistmas--1975

Eleanor MacFarlane, 25, lives in the tippy-top of Scotland. And when you live in the tippy-top of Scotland you should be pretty safe against unexpected visitors interrupting your free time and any raised eyebrows over your wardrobe choices (no matter how scummy). I mean, you know you're in the wop-wops when the nearest town of any name is Tongue.
But Eleanor didn't bank on Fulk van Hensum, 36, showing up in her life again.
Yes. Again.
There was a torrid affair lasting some years that broke off due to his insistence on her abandoning her career ambitions. She's been hiding out in the tippy-top of Scotland (building up a world-class 'consultation' empire) ever since--working to ruin him and dreading the day he would walk back into her life.
(But can't you totally see another Harlequin of similar vintage with just that plot?)
No, Fulk is a friend of the family and he knew Eleanor when she was a five-year-old terror. That he catches her at her most unglamorous (sitting in the barn, eating an apple and playing with kittens) is an annoyance.
Editorial Note: I must have read this as one of my first Neels because the 11 year age gap felt really big. Silly me.
Their re-acquaintance is swift enough to cover all the pertinent details.
Him: Married? No. Engaged? Yes...Do you always dress like this?
Her: You're just as hateful as you were when you were a boy.
Her antipathy toward him is as irrational as his love for her is sudden. And pity the poor man. One minute he's engaged to Imogen (a name whose Latin meaning is 'image of her mother'--which is both hilarious and illuminating) and the next moment he has chucked his bonnet over the windmill for the gorgeous former-ankle-biter. All this is reason enough to excuse his wicked twitting of Eleanor, if you need one.
He takes a shine to her eight-year-old little brother, Henry, whose medical frailty is like a looming billboard over the proceedings. (Buy rheumatic fever! Satisfaction guaranteed! New, brighter formula!)
Fast forward a month. Eleanor is visiting home when a sudden blizzard traps Henry, his teacher and several other boys on a mountain-like pass.
Editorial Note: I love this episode. Fulk calls Eleanor his 'pocket compass' (which passes for a compliment in the tippy-top of Scotland) and they both have to pilot an aged school bus up some treacherous roads--showing up as brave, hearty, and full of good spirits.
Even though Henry escapes the event in relatively good health, Eleanor and Fulk's medical spidey-senses detect signs of an approaching illness. To head off any downturns, Fulk invites little Henry to Holland. Eleanor accompanies them to the passport offices and spends her time making a list (Doubly underlined) titled Things I Would Like to Have:
  • Roses for Christmas
  • Sable coat
  • Gina Fratini dress
  • Givenchy scarf
  • Marks and Spencer sweater
  • toothpaste
  • surgical scissors
  • every paperback I want
(It is an exhaustive list with catholic tastes. Pause here to wonder if Fulk sees the list.)
Interlarded in all this to-ing and fro-ing Eleanor finds out that Imogen (Oh that's right. Imogen.) is in Cannes. We don't know exactly how Fulk feels about her absence and he manages to answer any questions Eleanor puts to him with all the piercing specificity of a Chinese fortune cookie. (Confucius say Guinea-blonde in Cannes, an American millionaire will find.)
And then Henry's illness goes from hypothetical to nearly lethal. The rheumatic fever has arrived. Fulk fetches Eleanor, makes time to ogle her legs in the airport lounge and then whisks her off to her brother's side.
This part of the book is where our hero is thoughtful and distant--managing to convey the kind of interest and concern one might expect of one's insurance salesman. He avoids her as often as possible as they get Henry slowly back on his feet.
Baroness Oss van Oss (Imogen-image-of-her-mother's mother) is pretty much the supercilious harpy you would expect, swooping in to make sure her daughter's fiance isn't playing patty-fingers with the nurse. That Eleanor by this time knows she loves Fulk (and that Imogen's mother might have a point) makes no dent on her moral outrage.
Fulk rushes off to Cannes for a weekend and Eleanor stews like a girl who minds. (Naturally she minds.)
Things float along for a while in a trench warfare kind of way--either side is going nowhere and poison gas attacks are kept to a minimum--until one day Imogen (the much anticipated Imogen) shows up in Fulk's house.
Imogen isn't exactly raining hellfire and brimstone on the poor nurse's head--she's catty, to be sure (Mama said you were pretty, and I suppose you are in a large way, but not in the least chic--I wonder what Fulk sees in you?), but marvelously direct when Eleanor tells her to wait for Fulk.
'But you're going to marry him--you love him,' declared Eleanor persevering.
'No I'm not, and I don't.'
'Well, now what?'
Fulk will take care of 'now what'. He's got dozens and dozens of roses for Christmas if she'd care to step into the next room. He's going to do his proposing in style.
The End

Rating: I didn't dislike it but I wasn't in love with this one either. Maybe I've been suffering an embarrassment of riches (The Mistletoe Kiss last week and A Christmas Romance coming up) so that this selection is being judged against those really great offerings.
The characters are interesting, they have a compelling back story (a hero who remembers her when she was a snotty ankle-biter! Yes!) and they have a menacing (if traditional) threat of Imogen the Affianced.
But, like making jello in a heatwave, this story never quite gels for me. The Great Betty tells us that they're getting along but more often she shows us that they're ready to fly off the handle with one another--not that that is unexpected in the circumstances. If I had a mad passion for a man and he was engaged to a guinea-gold paragon I might find myself easily nettled as well.
Henry is that rare literary child who is a genuine delight and Ma and Pa MacFarlane add a homey and tolerant touch to the mix.
The beginning and the end are really the best parts for me and the culmination is charming.
Tasty Mince pie for me.

Food: Ice cream with nuts, boiled fish, nourishing stew, braised heart, spaghetti on toast (I need to be assured that this would be garlic toast.), hake and chips, poffertjes, Crowdie (a parcel of which Fulk is taking back to Holland for Henry who is sick), ham souffle, baked apples and cream, caramel custard and ragout of game.

Fashion: She meets him again wearing old slacks and a thick shabby sweater. She dons a russet tweed suit to impress him and has a tweed coat and fur hat. His servants give him a dreadful tie for Saint Nicolaas which she doesn't doubt he will wear.


  1. Betty Barbara here--
    I wanted to like this book--it had some really good parts(blizzard bus rescue, especially)--but there was so much of it that was meh..
    And part of my problem was with Eleanor--Imogen called her "dim" during their end of book face-off, and for once the "other woman" nailed it. It took her sooooo long to have her Dawning Realization. We had to put up with entirely too many pages of her vacillating between like and don't like.
    Of course Fulk doesn't help matters by being "mocking" half the time. I was so aware of how often Neels used the word when describing his interactions with Eleanore. Sorry--he had his DR back at the beginning of the book--one should not be mocking the object of one's affection. Fulk loses major points there. But then he regains a few of them by actually driving all the way to Cannes in order to (as we find out later)break up with Imogen. Of course, he leaves Eleanore with the impression that he is answering Imogen's beck and call..

    And, I was a bit squicked by his "I lost my heart to you (but didn't know it), when I was 16 and held your warm, plump 5 year old self in my arms"--Ewwww. 11 year gap doesn't matter that much when you both are over 21, it does matter when one of you is a teen and the other a mere child. And yes I know that is projecting modern sensibilities onto an old-fashioned scene, but still.....

    I didn't dislike it as much as I did Winter of Change. The best I can give it is Cheese Board.
    And a big Thank You to Our Betty for not throwing in any Scots dialect from Eleanore and family!

  2. Betty Barbara, I read this a few years ago but as soon as I read your comment about the 16 year old Fulk losing his heart to the 5 year old Eleanore, I remembered vividly how that made me feel. THUD! And, like you, I could step back from it and it wasn't so bad, but it did strike me as rather creepy on the first read.

    But I quite like when he finds her munching an apple in her nasty clothes. It's so REAL! We always meet important people in our lives (or soon-to-be-important) when we're at our worst, it seems. I met one of my best friends when she moved in to the neighborhood and another neighbor dropped in on me as I was finishing up a bushel of peaches. I had on a baggy dress with no bra!! and it was covered down the front with peach juice. I did have fresh peach pie to serve, but mercy - I know I was a wreck, and here was this sophisticated girl from Manhattan - she told me later that she was thinking, "I can never be friends with someone who cans peaches and makes pies for fun..."

    But all in all, it wasn't one of my favorites. The final scene does redeem it - that room full of roses - lovely. :)


  3. Oh, and I have an original cover version, too, and I liked that she was truly pretty on the cover, and not one of those garish twits so often depicted on Harlequins. ;-)


  4. Wow. I love this book. I love that it's different, with an (almost) plausible set up for how they meet. I love that Fulk has his life completely organized in a rather plastic way when he sees Eleanor eating an apple (how Biblical!) and realizes how wrong his well-organized life will be.

    And I disagree most vehemently with the presumption that "I lost my heart" is in any way sexual. Of course it wasn't. It was emotional. I take Fulk's comment to mean not "Oh, I have a thing for little girls" but rather "I felt something even as a jaded teenager that I didn't feel again until I saw you eating an apple." Of course, when he sees her eating the apple, he *also* feels the attraction . . . because he's not into little girls. (I mean, really -- there's an age gap, but not that much of an age gap.)

    And Eleanor's annoyance made perfect sense to me as well. That laconic RDD schtick probably works fine when they're all grown up, but in a teenager, it would be very annoying. Plus he's engaged, and Eleanor's not inclined to fall for someone else's fiancé, so staying annoyed at him is a good defense.

    But my highest praise is for how well this book was paced. After The Fifth Day of Christmas, this seemed to be an Acela train -- a very smooth ride & speedy, too.

    Queen of Puddings for me -- not in my top ten of The Canon, but probably in the Top 11-20 range.

  5. Betty Barbara here--
    Betty Magdalen--I am NOT suggesting in any way shape or form that teenage Fulk was a perv. No RDD could ever be! It was just the words that our Betty put in his mouth--the warm soft cuddly bit, left a bad taste in mine. Let's just say we know exactly what he meant and that you phrased it muchbetter than he did!

    Yes, the pacing is good and that's important. But, neither Fulk nor Eleanore 'clicked' with me, and if you don't care for the characters.....

  6. Betty Barbara again--
    Betty Cindy--yes, that artist did a number of Neels covers and they are all terrific(See HERE and HERE). He must have been a car enthusiast too, as there is usually the correct RDD motor vehicle included somewhere on the cover.
    Fulk drives one of the much despised Panther de Ville models. Henry and Margaret are much impressed. The Founding Bettys are not.

  7. So, her list of Things I Would Like to Have is such a cute thing for me. She tells him that it would indicate that 'someone really cared for one'.

    Mine definitely wouldn't include roses or sables but the year my husband bought me an air compressor for my birthday I nearly wept tears of joy.

  8. Betty Keira,

    I felt the same way when my husband bought me a scroll saw. :)

    Now, if I'd find a pasta machine motor under the tree I'd be nearly SLAIN with excitement!


  9. Still on my re-reading trek, and still cannot warm to this one! I had forgotten how much I didn't care for it. Very close to low flag on the totem pole!

  10. It is always interesting what captures attention as times passes.

    No-one seems to have an issue with an eight year old going abroad with a thirty-five year old but two people acknowledging the moment they (subconsciously) realised they were soulmates years later causes angst?

    It is a moment that foreshadows their relationship. They can be perfectly horrid to each other but they are the only one that an offer the other comfort and solace.

    Betty Neels seems have no time for the educated female. It is assured that Henry's education will not be compromised by going abroad with Fulk but barely a murmur whispered when Margaret is summoned to be amusement for Henry.

    At the moment, this is definitely in our Top 5 Neels.