For mysterious reasons some of Betty Neels' books aren't available for Kindle, and, unfortunately, Fate Is Remarkable (1970) is one of them. The blurbs on these books really don't do them justice, but here's the one for Fate Is Remarkable:
Sarah Dunn had worked with Hugo van Elven for a long time, and she was astounded when he suddenly proposed to her. Both of them were still recovering from previous unhappy love affairs, which was why Sarah decided to accept. Surely neither of them would wish to get emotionally involved again for a very long time, but she had not considered what would happen if her feelings for Hugo changed, while his remained the same. Could their need for love overcome their painful pasts, and allow a new companionship to grow?
Betty Neels has become my ultimate comfort read author, and it all began with reading a review over at Miss Bates Reads Romance on Tulips For Augusta. Now, 60 books later, the rest is history. Her books aren't for every romance reader: there's no steamy sex, the heroines are almost always sensible English nurses, the heroes are always enigmatic and as inscrutable as the sphinx, and there will be lovingly detailed descriptions of food, fashion, and architecture/furniture. They are almost always a medical romance, and since Ms. Neels was a former nurse, most narratives will be chock full of medical terms and surgical procedures. If you like eavesdropping on what the hero is thinking, you won't get it in a Neels book. Although there are one or two I've read in which short glimpses are allowed about his thoughts/feelings (Discovering Daisy), but that's the exception, not the rule.
What you will get is crisp writing, characters you care about, cheer for, laugh with, cry with, and worry over. Reading Betty Neels is as comforting and restorative as a cup of tea at the end of the day, when it seems everyone and everything has taken bites (or nibbles) from your soul. I know exactly what I'll get when I begin a Neels' book, but that doesn't ruin the journey. In fact, despite a formulaic premise and predictable plots, Ms. Neels manages to make each book feel unique. Where to begin, you might ask, if you'd like to try one? Well, you can try Tulips For Augusta, as I did, but Fate Is Remarkable is as good a place to start as any.
Fate Is Remarkable has a couple of my favorite tropes: unrequited love and marriage of convenience. Hugo has been in love with Sarah for years, but she is in love with and dating Steven, a resident, and is oblivious to all the greatness that is Hugo. When Steven dumps her, Hugo wastes no time in picking up the pieces and shortly offers a shocked Sarah a proposal:
"Why are you so surprised? We're well suited, you know. You have lost your heart to Steven; I - I lost mine many years ago. We both need companionship and roots. Many marriages succeed very well on mutual respect and liking - and I ask no more than that of you, Sarah - at least until such time as you might feel you have more to offer." (P. 49)
Now there's nothing romantic about his very business-like proposal. But look closely at his hesitation, the pause, before he tells her he lost his heart years ago. That's where the heartbreak is. It's Sarah he lost his heart to, not Janet (as she believes), the ex-fiancée who jilted him to marry another man long ago. Hugo is playing a very deep game here, biding his time until Sarah can come to love him as he loves her.
Hugo, like many of Betty Neels' heroes, is Dutch, and as I said, enigmatic. You'll need to look for clues about his thoughts: a bland expression, eyelids at half mast, a gleam in his eyes, a keen searching expression directed at our heroine, a curt reply, a silky tone of voice. For example, when Steven corners Sarah just before she marries Hugo, he's insulting in the extreme until Hugo puts him in his place:
"Hugo's voice behind her, quiet as always, but full of chilling menace, said:
'My friend, it seems I must tell you to get out yet again - and I should go if I were you, otherwise I might be tempted to use persuasion.'" (P. 73)
Steven, a bully but no fool, makes tracks as fast as his spindly little legs can carry him. For to stay and challenge Hugo would have resulted in a Hugo's very businesslike fist planted in his nose.
Hugo and Sarah enjoy an extended honeymoon at his cottage at Wester Ross overlooking Loch Duich. On the way to the cottage, Sarah and Hugo take an early morning walk, and the easy companionship between them underlines how perfect they for each other.
"They walked in the opposite direction this time and discussed the pleasures of getting up early, something they were both used to, as their jobs demanded it. The sun struck warm upon them, early though it was, and Hugo looked up at it and murmured, "'Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,' although perhaps that's a little out of context.'
'John Donne,' said Sarah, pleased that she knew what he was talking about, 'and most inappropriate, if I remember the rest of the poem.'" (P.80)
I disagree with Sarah. It is very appropriate for what's on Hugo's mind. Oh my. This poem, The Sun Rising, is such a big beautiful clue to what Hugo is feeling. He's married the woman he loves, she's with him - smiling, talking, enjoying his company, perhaps learning to love him at long last - and he feels like the world is his oyster right now despite Sarah's broken heart and their business-like arrangement. Hugo is sure that, at some point, he and Sarah, like Donne and his lover in the poem, will have a wonderful life together and that their love will be eternal ("Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time"). And that's another reason to give Betty Neels a try. There's always a snippet of classical literature or a poem scattered throughout each offering in the Neels' canon.
There's a big old honking hammer of foreshadowing as Sarah and Hugo make their slow progress to the cottage, hampered by a narrow road, and up a rather treacherous isolated path on the side of a mountain. Sarah remarks that she would never be brave enough to travel this road by herself.
"'Only the direst of circumstances would make me drive all this way; I should be terrified by myself. Supposing I got a puncture, or ran out of petrol?'
Hugo laughed and said in a comfortable reassuring voice:
'The country looks empty, doesn't it? But you're far less likely to be overlooked here than in London. Would you really not drive up here?'
'No - at least, only if I were desperate.'" (P. 81)
"Direst of circumstances"? "Terrified by myself"? "Desperate"? I knew then that at some future time, Sarah would indeed find herself navigating that treacherous, mountainous path to the cottage - alone, perhaps to lick her wounds privately. I imagined the Great Betty giggling maniacally as she scribbled these lines of dialogue.
Hugo is a wonderful man: kind, considerate, generous, supportive, caring; and it takes Sarah a really long time to come to her "dawning realization" that she loves Hugo. This is probably the only minor quibble I had with this book. Here's a wealthy doctor who volunteers his time to a clinic twice a week to provide medical care in a "dodgy" part of London. A man who ensures Mrs. Brown's, an elderly indigent patient, last days are as comfortable and pleasant as possible including redecorating her shabby apartment, hiring a companion to see to her needs, and adopting her cat when she passes away. And don't forget, he's the man who helped Sarah pick up the pieces of her heart after Steven dumped her.
He treats Sarah as if she's royalty - gifts galore, compliments on her beauty, praise for her expertise as a social hostess, an extended honeymoon in the Scottish a Highlands, trips to Holland, anything to make her happy. He even invites her to work with him at the clinic after he sees that being a social bee isn't quite enough for this hardworking, efficient former nurse. So for her not to recognize Hugo for the honorable wonderful man he is was frustrating. Sarah spends about half the book alternately mooning about her lost love, Steven, and wondering why she yearns to spend more time with Hugo.
Dawning realizations for the heroine in a Betty Neels' book are things I look forward to and try to keep track of. They can come as the heroine listens to his quiet tread up the stairs to bed or across a Mayo table in the OR or as he leans against an outcropping of rock or the first waking thought our heroine has after a restless night's sleep. They're all different and as much a part of the heroine and the story as the professions of love toward the end. Sarah's comes about mid-way in Fate Is Remarkable and at a most inconvenient time - at a dinner party.
It was during their first dinner party that she made an interesting discovery about herself. (...)
She was roused from her pleasant domestic thoughts by Kate, who asked her if she had heard the news that Steven was to marry Anne Binns in October. Sarah stared at her, struck dumb by the sudden awareness of a total lack of interest in Steven. She hadn't thought about him for days - weeks; she saw no reason to ever think of him again. She went on looking rather vacantly at Kate until Hugo's voice bridged the awkward little pause. 'There you are, darling. A chance to buy a magnificent hat!' (P&P. 120-121)
She not only hasn't thought about Steven, but also has just realized she is, in fact, in love with Hugo. I say, can we get a "Alleluia!" It hits Sarah hard, too, because there's that pesky Janet situation and she's wondering how to tell the man you love that you love him and not that weasel with the spindly legs, Steven, especially if your beloved might still be in love with Janet. Oh dear! So she has a bit of a cry in her pillow with a hope that he might one day return her love. Sarah pretty much wallows in her realization for a while which was good for my heart. Her heart thumps against her ribs as it never thumped before just from his smile. She floats across the breakfast room to wish him "Good morning." He takes her arm as they stroll, and she shivers with "excitement and happiness." Unfortunately, she misses Hugo's rather "penetrating look" at her puzzling demeanor and a chance to make her declaration. And how on earth did she pass up the opportunity to tell him how she feels when he declares that they've been married "three months and ten days"? Think about it. Hugo knows to the day how long they're married. No, no, I believe that Hugo knows to the exact minute how long they've been married. For most of the morning following Sarah's dawning realization, she moons "along the streets" as she visits the grocer, the butcher, as she does a "little desultory dusting", enjoys being called "Mrs. van Elven". If she went near a piece of paper and pen, I had no doubt she would be writing "Mrs. van Elven" in pink curlicues with a plethora of hearts or maybe "Sarah + Hugo = Love" Anyway, it was sweet and cute and charming the way she was bowled over by this.
The fly in the ointment that keeps these two from declarations and kisses is, of course, Janet. Janet makes a surprise appearance about 60 pages later and manages to muddy the waters for true love until the very end. There are a lot of "other women" characters in Neels' books, and most are cut from the same cloth - hateful, cruel, and spiteful. Janet isn't that at all. In fact, Sarah admits that she and Janet could be friends if the situation were different. The title of the book comes when Sarah remarks to Hugo how "marvelous that [they] should meet again, isn't it? Fate is remarkable." (P. 192) Finding the significance of the title of the book is another treasure hunt for me like the Neels' heroines' various dawning realizations. But what Sarah doesn't discover until the end is that Hugo, not fate, engineered her transfer to the Out Patient Department to work with him because he fell in love with her years ago when she worked in the Men's Medical Unit. That he waited three years because she was in love with Steven. That he was resigned to wait even longer after marrying her so that she could recover from Steven. He doesn't deny he loved Janet in the past, just as she loved Steven, but for him, now, there's only Sarah.
The outside world does encroach on Hugo and Sarah - Steven, Sarah's insecurities, jealousy, jobs, social commitments, Janet - but in the end, back at the Scottish cottage (I told you so!) high on Wester Ross overlooking Loch Duich, the two lovers are united finally, echoing the last two lines in The Sun Rising: "Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;/ This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere."
My review really doesn't do justice to this little gem. If you'd like to read one that does, head on over to The Uncrushable Jersey Dress http://everyneelsthing.blogspot.ca/p/undefinitive-neels-canon.html and read that one. The ladies over there have done a wonderful homage to just about every Neels book available. And, if you're so inclined for further adventure, I also urge you to visit Miss Bates Reads Romance http://missbatesreadsromance.com review blog for intelligent, insightful reviews of romance novels. Be sure to read her Tulips For Augusta review.