Monday, April 4, 2011

An Independent Woman--2001

Jack Kennedy famously said, of a diplomatic trip to France, 'I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I enjoyed it.'  Time magazine quipped, of the visit, 'There was also that fellow who came with her.'  Dear me.  An Independent Woman was doomed in my estimation to be known as the politician I had to glad-hand in order to get to vivacious elan of The Little Dragon.  At least that's how I remembered it...

(* This clever metaphor breaks down, I understand, over the fact that JFK was not just 'Good-looking for a politician.' (Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations...) but very nearly actually handsome.)

...attach the bottom to the top.  Iron.
Julia Gracey is on the floor with a curtain trying to magic a lovely/passable evening gown out of it using no money, no time and probably wrestling with one of those gorgeous vintage Vogue patterns that assumes she took four years of Home Ec. in high school. Happily, Julia is a top-notch needlewoman and she's not going to let a little thing like shoddy materials get her down.
Her sisters, Ruth and Monica, are beautiful and a little helpless and often leave all the crushing, spinster-ensuring details in life to Julia (moving them to their home in London, hooking up the phone, paying the bills, showing a little cleavage to the butcher so they can get cheap cuts...etc.) while they busy themselves with little jobs and little romances. Monica has George the Vicar and Ruth has Thomas the Doctor and Julia...Julia has the booby prize.  What else would you call Oscar the Junior Executive at a greeting cards firm?
A knock on the door won't interrupt her work--and work it is.  She'll have a job turning this tatty fabric into anything worth wearing and all the cat hair will have to be...
'It looks like a curtain.'
That's Professor Gerard van der Maes, 36, come to drop off a package for Ruth from her Thomas.  He's handsome and larger than life and there she is, grubbing on the floor with a paper pattern. 
And his was not a passing comment.  (Well, it was to him.) It somehow manages to be a mandate on her life, her circumstances, her miserable excuse for an 'admirer'...She hates him.
Editorial Note: I hated her instant antipathy the first time I read it but this time I tried to understand her feelings a bit more.  When I was in high school my backpack broke.  Instead of asking for a replacement (our family motto might have been: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.), I employed a strappy airplane carry-on bag to do the job.  I lacked the elan to carry off really quirky fashions but it sort-of looked right. Things had been going along nicely for a week when a boy in my German class said, 'Is that an airplane carry-on bag?'  That's all he said.  No teasing, no nothing.  I was mortified--In a way only a self-involved teenager can be when they think everyone spends all their free-time thinking about the social mis-steps of their peers.  I loathed that boy.  Such are the feelings of Miss Julia Gracey.
A short time later finds our heroine stepping out of a taxi in front of a hotel in the Drapery.  She looks well--well enough for Oscar and a room full of greeting card sellers (her co-workers.  Her job is writing verses for the inside of the cards along the lines of, 'Gee, I think that you're so sweet and I'm sorry we couldn't meet.  Hope you had a lovely day.  That is all I want to say...'  (Top of my head!)).  It's just too bad that the Professor with his Panzer division of What-Not-To-Wear camera people are waiting in the lobby.  'I can't say I agree with Oscar about your dress, but then I know it's a curtain, don't I?'  He was sorry the moment he had said it; for a moment she had the look of a small girl who had been slapped for no reason at all...  
He wants his own face slapped is what he wants.  Can I even begin to list the depth of caddishness in that remark?  Not properly.  Sufficient to say that the dinner he takes her out to afterward doesn't come anywhere near to making up for that.  The night isn't a total loss for her.  She's dumped Oscar (which bodes ill for her continuing employment but well for her future happiness) and ate really well. 
Attempting to write 'humorous'
cards would be difficult but writing
LOLCats cards would be impossible...
Sure enough, a short time later she receives her pink slip in the mail along with a short note explaining that the firm will be following market trends into the upsetting land of Humorous Cards.
Her sisters both get married.  (I know I'm skipping great swaths but it isn't as interesting as it could be.)  So, Julia has to:
  • Arrange and execute two weddings. (A task that has her swimming in sausage rolls)
  • Find lodgers who don't smoke, drink beer, drive by Brighton or give her the heebie-jeebies. (Very difficult post-1985.)
  • Nurse her sister back to health from the brink of...a low-grade fever.
Ruth has the flu which is always hard has no responsibilities.  Her husband can look after himself quite well.  There are no little nippers playing King of the Hill on her abdomen.  There is no angry boss demanding TPS reports...(Do I sound irritated?  I once had a vicious 24 hour flu that attacked on the very week my youngest son discovered stairs.  Mijnheer had a code dump that night.  The only way to prevent death was to park the ottoman in the doorway, flop down on it (while my eyeballs blazed way in their sockets), let myself act as a human jungle gym and pray for death...Any one of you could probably tell a similar tale.) Julia goes along as a companion, making fast friends with Gerard's old Nanny (who has the gift of Second Sight where her former charge's matrimonial prospects are concerned), and then returns to London and sells her house.  What?  Why would she do a thing like that?  It's her only asset!  See, Ruth wants a down payment and Monica wants central heating...I know.  They don't make her do it.  They don't even ask her to do it.  Still, they do plenty of talking behind her back (listeners never hear any good of themselves) and the whole thing bugs me.
The Professor, returned to England just in time to do a spot of rescuing, asks her to go to Holland to watch the cottage (which already has a gardener and a daily woman) while Nanny is in the hospital.  So off Julia goes to Holland!--to put fresh flowers around the cottage and visit the hospital (for this she draws a salary!).  She meets Gerard again who, despite being awfully in love with her, still can't manage to be pleasant and courteous. Here, I have fashioned a dramatization of that event.
Mothers and wives first.  Shapely spinsters to follow...
She returns to London determined to forget him.  He returns to London and chains himself to his desk in a futile effort to keep his hands off her.  (This is when, for me, it finally gets good.)  He allows himself, once he has achieved an air of casual disinterest (three weeks of deep meditation finally pay off!), to go to her and ask for a night out.  For his pains (all the climbing down off the RDD pedestal the world has mounted him onto and the carefully studied nonchalance), she hands him his hat.  No I can't go.  I'm leaving London. No, you may not have my forwarding address...  She's all but burned down her house and brushed away her tracks.  But Gerard (In a part I love.) pours over back-issues of Lady to figure out where she is.
Speaking of burned down houses...The manor house that she works at catches fire.  Gerard flies up (he's a pilot! Discuss.) and I was hoping he'd manage to pull her from the burning roof but alas, some hours later he muscles his way past an officer with the 'My future wife was here' routine and bundles her out of the area and back to Ruth's.
Whatever else was going wrong, knitting would make it right.
From here she decides to rise from the ashes as a small business owner.  (They get a lovely date or two as well.) And I really like this part; Julia scouts locations, consults a solicitor, dips into her capital (from selling the house), rents a shop, orders from wholesalers, and organizes fittings and furnishings in no time at all.  That she is desperately lonely she does not consider.  That she doesn't want to own a woolen/embroidery shop doesn't come into it. She's going to do it...and for a minute (until you realize that this is a Betty Neels book and there's not a prayer she's going to make it) you really believe she will.
The takings are slim and though Julia's organizational talents are savant-level, her marketing talents are nil.
Gerard, anxious for her to succeed but antsy to make her his, lets her have three weeks (he has a biological clock set at three weeks, okay?) and then appears out of nowhere amongst her woolens. He takes her off to Stourhead (another Official Betty Neels Pilgrimage Site?  I think so.) and they enjoy a magical day of near-perfect amity.
The knock on her door in the wee hours of the next morning herald a new dawn of Interdependence for them both.  He's come to ask her to marry him at last.
The End 

Rating:  I remember really not liking this one--for reasons I could not wholly articulate, mostly revolving around the fact that Julia, the alleged Independent Woman, seemed like nothing of the sort.  But after this much closer reading (which is not how an ordinary read, getting the overall vibe and missing the details, would go) I am prepared to admit that the book is nowhere near as objectionable as that.  It's a nicely written if sad book; Julia spends her time wishing that she and Gerard could just get along with one another (but not really striking the right kind of sparks off of each other), Gerard spends his time saying exactly what pops into his mind (which you should never do until after the wedding...) and there are some tantalizing dead-ends (he had a heartbreak a year ago which provides the entire foundation for his grumpiness toward women (which we never hear about!) and a woman with a first and last name is supposed to be chasing him at the hospital (but we never see hide nor hair of her).  Also, the actual number of days the two spend together are very small.
But Julia is quite plucky--she organizes her sisters into wedded bliss, finds gainful employment (who would have expected a fire?), and marshals her resources into a failing start-up. With a few more years of grinding perseverance (which she is entirely capable of) she could be the next Steve Jobs of her own Woolen/Embroidery empire! What a shame Betty Neels had her already marked down for occupational ruin!
I think I'm also a bit bummed about the failure of the set-up to materialize.  Three sisters of marriageable age living together--it sounds like a great fairy tale--but the two sisters get bundled away with all the romance of a load of laundry.
Still, The Great Betty was, like, ninety when she wrote it and there are some wonderful moments, particularly post-DR from the hero's perspective.  (Is that as mind-blowing to you as it is to me?)
So, this is somewhere between a Madiera Cake and a Treacle Tart for me (way, way up from the Tinned Soup of my memory).  In other words...the book is passably handsome...for a politician.

Food: Cheese souffle, sole Meuniere, cornflakes (so she can become wand-like), steak pie, sausage rolls for the first wedding, Kaas broodje, buttered bread and tea, new potatoes, lamb chops, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, game soup, roasted parsnips, lemon tart, potato crisps in a hot bath and a stone, cold egg because her temporary landlady is a shabby-genteel Machiavelli.

Fashion: She fashions a curtain-dress, wears a magnificent shawl, and a pleated skirt with a tweed jacket. A pair of elderly trousers and a turtleneck sweater make him fit the Dutch cottage he owns.  She wears a denim skirt and buys (just in case!) a high-necked and long-sleeved amber silk chiffon dress over a silk slip.


  1. I liked this a lot more than I was expecting to. Sure, all the flaws of The Late Canon are there...but not quite the same. Julia isn't as incompetent as some of The Late Canon sisterhood, and she's got some idea of what she wants to do. (It's a shame she didn't take a bit longer to figure out about the shop -- but it might have worked out in the long run, once she figured out clever ways to advertise herself.)

    What I liked was that she wasn't crazy every time she thought, "This is the last time we'll see each other," because Gerard doesn't present himself as a potential suitor -- more like an officious Dutch uncle. (Wow, did I not know what that term really means. According to Chambers, a "Dutch uncle" means "someone who criticizes or reprimands one unsparingly." Learn something new everyday.)

    But what a difference some hero POV makes. He becomes more human even if we don't get to see his Dawning Realization. I ♥ love ♥ the scene where she comes down in her nightie and her robe's open and makes him tea. And he NOTICES her déshabillé in almost a you know way. LOVED it!

    Oh, and the other thing that caught my attention was the stately home outside Carlisle. That's roughly where the nasty nursing home was in -- (sorry, my database doesn't have enough detail to say which one has the nasty nursing home) -- leaving me to wonder if The Great Betty didn't have to do a brief stint in some stately home-cum-rehabilitation facility and *hated* it.

    Anyway, I liked this one -- Boeuf en Croute for me.

  2. Betty Keira- that "dramatization" that you "fashioned" truly made me laugh out loud at the end of a maddening day! Thanks!

  3. Betty Barbara here--
    I remember enjoying this fairly well, when last I read it, which was several months ago. I got all choked up over her failed business--I really wanted her to succeed! (Even though I knew she wouldn't, this being a Betty book and all).
    Am I correct in remembering this one as the one with the disappearing cat? Our heroine spends first part of book worrying about the creature, especially when it comes time for her to go to Holland. Cat goes off to stay with one of her sisters. Julia comes back from Holland and there's no mad rush to see the cat! I think the poor puss gets mentioned one more time and that's it!
    I got a good giggle out of our hero flying up to scene of the fire! I suspected that this was where we would have our declarations of love, etc, until I looked at the page count.
    And of course the bit with the curtain/dress did not remind me so much of Scarlett as of the scene from Enchanted.

  4. LOL - I just finished rereading this- you're review had me laughing a lot! Hilarious! My favorite part is when her sister Ruth corners the good Doctor at the party and is "quite" forward with him. Ruth apologizes and says it's just "she's my sister and I lover her very much." Without batting an eye he says, "So do I." and turns away to talk to some approaching "dignitaries" - Betty out did herself with those couple of pages.... This Dutch Doctor was one of the best in my book.... you just can't help falling in love with the guy! The heroine was just laughable but he was great... - She would do nicely for him though b/c she was a very nice person (as all Betty's gals are) -

  5. Just finished this one last night, and I think I enjoyed it more the second time around. I think I grew tired of her snarkiness the first read. Being tired this week and perhaps a little snarky myself, I wasn't as bothered this time.

    Muffin, the disappearing cat, did go to live with sister Ruth and Thomas once the family home was sold.

    Betty AnoninTX

  6. I wondered if she had in fact written it - so much dialogue, short sentences, rapid pace . . .

    1. Except that by about page 100 it has reverted to norm

    2. True- it's the opening chapters that are in an untypical style

    3. LOL.... 'next morning herald a new dawn of Interdependence for them both.' Such a brilliant line.

      Inoffensive, is perhaps, the best word we can use to describe the novel. Julia is so far out her time zone it is though a Weeping Angel has transported her to the 1940s. (Indeed, it could be argued the Neels 1970s heroines are far more independent than their 1990s counterparts).

      Of course, Julia was set up for failure and that is so irritating that the RDD is waiting for the inevitable 'I told you so'. It perhaps would have been better if the relationship resolved itself after the fire rather than drag on to meet the word count.

      There are lovely moments in the book, but the parts are not greater than the whole.

    4. A Doctor Who reference (Weeping Angels)! Or should I say Doctor Von Who?

  7. The Three Graces, goddesses of such things as charm, beauty, and creativity. And three Gracey sisters - quite fortunate parallel, I think ;-)

  8. Another of Betty's Ladies of Perpetual Peevishness. At least she recognized it and tried to stop herself. Interdependence? It didn't seem like Dr. Nice was "anxious for her TO succeed" as much as he was anxious that she WOULD succeed: "... he would let her have her shop for a while, and once the first flush of independence had worn off, she would turn to him." Oh really, Gerk-rard? And he restrains himself from sending roses on opening day. Why? It would have been a nice gesture that she would have misinterpreted as just wishing her luck. He could have made a nice order under his mother's name, he could have sent stuff to the ladies who worked with her in the stately home, he could have started a craft therapy room in the hospital featuring her stuff... If she would have been successful at first, he was probably prepared to hire some youths with flick-knives to cut the glass in her window, to ensure her turning to him. (No doubt, Ruerd in Mistletoe Kiss did whatever he could to ensure that Emmy had a successful little embroidery business on the side. Maybe once they married Gerkrard did the same for Julia. Maybe. But Gerard and Julia are no ErmentRuerd.)
    Interesting his relationships with his mother and his nanny.

    B. Baersma

  9. (Talk about peevish. Maybe I was a little harsh. But not among my favorites.

    B. Baersma)