I love Betty Neels' books. I love the comfortableness of opening one and knowing exactly what I'll be getting. I love how very literate a writer she was, the quaint turn of phrase, the loving detailed descriptions of food, architecture, and fashion. I love the inscrutability of her heroes, which make me examine tones of voices or facial expressions to understand what the hero is feeling. I love her earlier heroines who are independent, smart, and industrious - be she plain or beautiful, "splendidly built" or lithesome, rich, poor or just comfortable. I love that despite the sameness of her plots, she managed adroitly to put a slightly different spin each and every time, making each book in its way unique and fresh. Having said this, I recently finished reading The Right a Kind of Girl (1995), and it is, hands down, my least favorite book by Betty Neels.
First of all, the heroine, Emma, was a little too "lost waif" for my tastes. Of course, reduced family circumstances have left her and her widowed mother in, if not dire circumstances, then pretty damn close. Her mother has a pension but Emma is forced to find work to keep the household afloat but has little or no marketable skills. I've read this many times in other Neels' books, but in this one Emma seemed a little too dependent "on the kindness of strangers" - for example, relying on Mr. Dobbs at Dobbs Garage for access to a car or phone, an extra steak and kidney pie from Cook at Mrs. Smith-Darcy's house or slipping in the back door of Mrs. Smith-Darcy's house to sneak a "morsel" left for her in the fridge. She just seemed to drift along passively for most of the book.
The phantom characters were another odd aspect of this book. They suddenly appeared and just as quickly were gone. Mrs. Smith-Darcy was finished after page 35. Doreen, the new mum, who was clueless how to care for her baby and carelessly hadn't bothered to name him until Emma reminds her, shows up and then fades away. (Doreen just calls him "Baby" but decides finally on "Bartholemew" after her husband's father.) The nanny from hell Doreen hires who berates Emma for wanting to kiss cute little Bart good-bye when Emma leaves is there - then, Poof! Gone in a puff of smoke. Mike, the mostly absent husband to Doreen does makes (finally!) one appearance later and seems to be the signal for Doreen, Mike and Bart to just vanish thereafter. If you blink, you'll miss the "sweet old thing" nanny hired to replace nanny from hell. I was puzzled why these characters were there as they seemed to have no purpose at all.
Then there was the draggy middle which made me look longingly back at the beginning. At least the horridly insulting Mrs. Smith-Darcy put a little oomph in Emma and made me care what happened to her. Emma takes a job as a mother's help (that would be the Doreen/Baby Bart phase) for a few weeks after losing her job as companion. Then her mum dies unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism caused by sudden onset of varicose veins post perforated ulcer surgery. Emma drifts along wringing her hands but doing nothing to settle her "small affairs", like sell the house, pay outstanding debts, or even find a job. She just languishes diffidently, wishing Paul would come. Emma stays in this waiting pattern until Paul whisks her off to his cottage and then offers her a marriage of convenience. But even after their marriage, Emma and Paul really don't interact much. Paul is often away or busily healing people with his surgical skills while Emma arranges flowers or walks the dogs. The book just drifts along aimlessly until the advent of Diana, the evil other woman.
But, before I get to Diana, I need to say a word or two about Paul because he is without a doubt the main reason I dislike this book so much. Paul Wyatt is a very successful, much in demand surgeon, respected by his colleagues, has a loving family, and friends aplenty. He's also rich as Croesus as are most Neels' heroes. On the inscrutability scale, I would have to rate him at least 9.8 on a 10 point scale. If Paul were a cipher, he'd be the Voynich Manuscript, the Beale Ciphers, the Dorabella Cipher, the Taman Shud, and the K4 panel of the Kryptos sculpture all rolled into one. Sometimes, most of the time, this can be fun trying to ferret our hero's feelings, but this time Paul's impassivity was just. . .vexing and tiring and puzzling. His extreme stoicism, or inscrutability, made it difficult to understand a lot of his actions. I was prepared to overlook and forgive his condescension as he asks Emma if she'd like to find "a little job". Go ahead, Paul, pat Emma on the head. You know you want to. I was even a little sympathetic at his arrogance as he insists she only work two days a week and only four hours each day. After all, he's trying to make life easier for her. But for the life of me I cannot understand what possessed him to even think, much less say in anger or otherwise, that Emma was worthless.
Here's the set up: Emma is working at a nursery managed by Diana Pearson, an old friend of Paul's. Diana and Emma do not like each other from the start. Emma envies her easy camaraderie with Paul and her elegant looks so she's a bit defensive. Diana, who's had her eye on Paul for a year as a possible husband, dislikes Emma because Paul married Emma. Diana is cold to Emma, over friendly with Paul, and constantly throws out innuendos that she and Paul are star-crossed lovers and that Emma is inadequate in every imaginable way and frankly standing in the way of their happiness. She deliberately sets Emma up for a disaster and Emma rather stupidly falls for it. The result is a towering rage from Paul directed at Emma:
"'What possessed you to behave in such a foolish manner?' He wanted to know. 'Why all the melodrama? What are ambulances for? Or the police, for that matter? What in the name of heaven possessed you, Emma? To go racing off on to the moor in bad weather, sending dramatic messages, spending the night in a God-forsaken camp. Ignoring Diana's pleading to wait and give her time to phone for up help. No, you must race away like a heroine in a novel, bent on self-glory.'
Emma said in a shaky voice, 'But Diana - '
'Diana is worth a dozen of you.'" (p. 167)
Really!? I cannot even fathom how he can possibly make up for this. Unfortunately, for me, he never really does. Of course, Emma is not guilty of any of Paul's accusations, but he never gives her a chance to defend herself or tell him what really happened because after those seven deadly words, he dismisses Emma like a disobedient child with a "we'll talk later", and closets himself in his study. If you're generous, you can easily justify his rant as worry over Emma's safety and concern for a woman he is perhaps coming to love. (I, however, wasn't in a generous frame of mind.) Except for that last sentence. That last bit was, for me, callous, insensitive, inexcusable, and unforgivable. I never saw Paul as a character deserving of a happy ending or Emma's love after that. Worse, he never apologizes. In fact, when the tables are turned and Emma believes the worst of him, he is suddenly hurt beyond measure, cold in the extreme, mocking at every opportunity, and as sulky as a school boy denied a treat. What an ass!
There were a few, honestly as scarce as hen's teeth, shining moments which kept me from tossing this book into the UBS sack. I loved Emma's compassionate heart for poor, unloved, abandoned, homely baby Charley at the nursery. He was always cross and was said to resemble a wizened old man, but Emma always took time for a kiss on his head, a quick cuddle, and a kind word ("Who's a lovely boy, then?"). Maisie, a co-worker at the nursery was a delightfully colorful character. She's fun, no-nonsense, and an unashamed, unabashed eavesdropper. I loved that soon after Paul tells Emma she's worthless compared to Diana that Maisie expresses exactly the opposite sentiment. ("You're worth a dozen of 'er")
I wish the brief glimpses of fire and snarky sarcasm in defending herself (and what she considers "hers") had been present in the draggy middle but especially with Paul after his unjust accusations as it was in her latter interactions with Diana. After the disastrous encampment rescue mission, the scales fall from Emma's eyes with respect to Diana. She begins to give as good, if not better, as she gets from Diana. Here a few examples:
Diana to Emma: "He and I have such a lot in common."
Emma: "I expect you have," said Emma sweetly, "but not marriage."
Diana: "...he works too hard; he'll overdo things if he's not careful. I'll try to persuade him to ease off a bit."
Emma: "I think you can leave that to me, Diana. You know, you're so - so motherly you should find a husband." Emma's smile was sweet.
Emma to Diana after Diana shows up unexpectedly at Paul's home while he's away, giving Emma the impression that she's intimate with every portrait, piece of silver, nook, and cranny
"...you look a bit pinched. I expect you're tired."
Emma to Diana after Diana advises Emma to leave Paul as quickly as possible because she's thwarting true love: "I think you'd better go," said Emma, "before I throw something at you." (...) "You're very vulgar, aren't you?"
Emma does manage to find her voice at least once with Paul after his impression of a horse's patootie, and though it's a bitter, heated exchange, I give her props for making him feel like the ass he is.
"'You listened to her and you believed her without even asking me. Well, go on believing her, you've known her for years, haven't you? And you've only known me for months; you don't know much about me, do you? But I expect you know Diana very well indeed.'
Paul put his hands in his pockets. 'Yes. Go on, Emma.'
'Well, if I were you, I'd believe her and not me," she added bitterly. "After all,she's worth a dozen of me.'" (pp.181-182)
The Right Kind of Girl will not end up fondly remembered by me, to be picked up and re-read countless times. In fact, I shall do my very best to forget I ever read a word of it. This is my exercise in excision so to speak. I am cutting it out of my reading memory by laying it all out in this review. Having said that, this book won't stop me from continuing my adventures in Neelsdom. The Right Kind of Girl was not my first Neels' clunker and probably won't be my last. But I find comfort in the fact that the gold in the Neels' canon of work far outweighs the dross so that for every rubbish one, like The Right Kind of Girl, there's ten more that are priceless.