I "discovered" The Great Betty April of this year after reading an outstanding review of Tulips for Augusta at Miss Bates Reads Romance. I'd heard Betty Neels name mentioned at various romance book blogs but continued to bypass her mainly because my limited experience with Harlequin categories had been consistently disappointing. But this review intrigued me for many reasons, mostly because it was crystal clear this reviewer had loved reading this book. I wanted that feeling. I wanted to read a book to the very last page, the very last word, close it, and hold it to my heart because it was just that wonderful. It was something I had lost in the past several months and despite trying different sub-genres had sadly noted a steadily declining interest for most romances. I kept pulling out older books to re-read, searching blogs for recommendations, and becoming more and more frustrated. Tulips For Augusta was available for Kindle, reasonably priced, and, as I said, that wonderful review was still bouncing around in my head and my heart. Suddenly, I was feeling slightly more hopeful. There's just no other way to say this: I fell in love with Betty Neels' writing. As of today, I've read 108 of her books and enjoyed each and every one of them. Yes, even those books of her canon that didn't work so well for me, I found redeeming charms scattered throughout that always made reading a Neels book rewarding. Her books are comforting and comfortable, and if, after you read this and decide to check out one of her many books, you may find The Uncrushable Jersey Dress blog (http://everyneelsthing.blogspot.ca) very helpful. The ladies there have done an outstanding job reading and reviewing each and every Neels book/novella that can be found, and their synopses are laugh out loud funny. If you find, as I did, that Betty's books are a little piece of wonderful for you, then you should definitely check out their Facebook page and become an honorary "Betty."
A couple of weeks ago as 'Bettysday' day (her birthday) was fast approaching, I still wasn't sure how I could commemorate it, but a twitter convo gave me an idea. I wanted to pay tribute to her in a way I think she would've liked best. Betty Neels' ladies loved writing/receiving letters, and there's always a sweet little area set up in all her books for doing just that. I've wished so many times that I could write to her and tell her how much I love her books and how many hours of reading pleasure she's given to so many people, especially myself. So I decided to do this review of Wedding Bells for Beatrice as a letter to The Great Betty. A fan letter of sorts...
Dear Ms. Neels:
Thank you for writing all of these delightful books. When I've had stress-filled days or just feeling down in the dumps, your books never fail to cheer me up. I love all those enigmatic Dutch doctors and the hardworking British nurses you paired them with. What fun it is to look for a gleam in his eye or a small smile or a quirk of an eyebrow to figure out what he's thinking or feeling. Or to laugh out loud at the earnest young women declaring, "Well, I never did!" I don't know how many times a heroine says determinedly, 'I shan't sleep.' and yet as soon as her head hits the pillow - BOOM! she's out like a light, but each time I laugh and wonder what I'm doing wrong.
I've just finished reading Wedding Bells For Beatrice, and I believe Gijs van der Eekerk is one of my favorite heroes. Besides being handsome and a successful hematologist, he's compassionate, caring, humorous and so romantic. Probably one of the most romantic of your heroes.
For example, Gijs makes no objection to his daughterAlicia's two cats: Mouser and Chouchou (adopting cats is always a good sign in a hero, I think) who have seen better days. Poor Mouser is missing an eye and part of an ear, and I hesitate to ask what happened to the other half of Chouchou's tail. Despite both a lack of pedigree and various body parts, these two cats are happy, obviously well-cared for, and much loved even by Gijs' dog, Fred of the many teeth and twinkling yellow eyes. And then there's Willoughby, the "fierce looking cat with a torn ear" firmly ensconced in comfort and understated luxury at Gijs' London pied-a-terre, after being fished out of rainwater tank. I love the care and time you spent on picking out names for the pets here and throughout every book. The names for the twin black labs - Gem and Mini - owned by Professor Alexander van Zeust in A Star Looks Down are favorites of mine. Dirk, his nephew, is impressed when Beth gets the connection between their names and "Gemini", the heavenly twins. It was a litmus test of sorts for Beth, and thankfully she passed. I also laughed out loud in Visiting Consultant - at the names of the family dog and cat - The Blot and Titus. I knew I'd love Maximillian van Oosterwelde when he asks Sophy Greenslade: "Blot. Estucheon or landscape?" (The answer is "landscape", of course, because the Greenslades don't have an estucheon.) and even more when he's puzzled by their choice of name for Titus the cat ("He likes porridge.") I confess I had to research how/why this answered Jonkheer van Oosterwelde's question. Titus Oates. Oates/porridge. I laughed out loud at Dr. Oliver Seymour's name for tom cat - May - because that's the month they found him in Midsummer Star. Reminded me of that Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue." Even when you'd exhausted pet names and resorted to the rather obvious "Cat" for an adopted feline, you made it fun and funny to read as the heroine tries out different names from the sublime to the ridiculous only to be faced time after time with a slightly disapproving indifference to them all from said cat. Only when she tries "Cat" does she get a positive reaction. Pet names are almost as much fun as family retainers names.
Gijs (and indeed all your heroes) impressed me with all the care and courtesy with which he treated Beatrice - walking her back to her flat, checking for intruders, making sure the path. lab building was locked on weekend nights so that she would feel safe and secure in her flat after everyone left for the day, and calling to ensure she had a safe journey home when he couldn't accompany her. Or having Bilder pack a box of goodies for her when she didn't have time to go food shopping. Or picking her up and carrying her to his great honking Bentley so she doesn't have to get her feet wet and cold in snow.
One thing that struck me as hilarious was Gijs' abrupt exits. I began to refer to him as "Flash Gijs" because of the many times he escorted Beatrice home to her flat, then he was gone like a flash, almost as if he had a fire lit under his heels. Details and habits and little idiosyncrasies like these make the characters in your books feel ...real. Gijs' quick getaways or the way Mr. Greenfell of Heidelberg Wedding jingles the change in his pockets or doodles a large cat sporting wellington boots, a yachting cap and handsome whiskers on Sister Eugenia's blotting pad are things I look forward to discovering so much and make these characters jump off the page.
Gijs and Beatrice's first meeting was not propitious for their future happiness. His impatience with her social chit chat was off putting until I realized later this man had fallen in love and wanted to discuss anything except the weather with his beloved. I loved the subtlety and layers of meaning which gave this a fresh perspective later on. It wasn't Beatrice he disliked, it was the restraint he was forced to show because he couldn't sweep her off her feet immediately and carry her back to his stately home in Holland as well as the fact that he had to wait for her to come to the same realization he had instantly felt. Once I understood that, Gijs' actions took on a different aspect.
Gijs proposal of a marriage of convenience was at once prosaic and funny, and though he claimed not one iota of devotion to/emotion for her, every subsequent action screamed "ROMANCE!" Over and above that, I loved how Gijs promised to share his sandwiches with Beatrice as an incentive to marry him, something Tom the Terrible could never lay claim to. Beatrice is one of your "splendidly built" girls with a healthy appetite so sustenance is a real concern for her. Terrible Tom should have realized when he gobbled up all the sandwiches but one that Beatrice was going to give him the old heave-ho.
When Gijs tells Beatrice to think about his proposal, get used to the idea, and that two people may only subconsciously know they share liking, hating, loving but "sooner or later they will realize it" strummed at my heart strings. Or when he doesn't see Beatrice for three days after his proposal and the first words he says to her are "I missed you." Three words, so simple, but filled with meaning. She was missed. Beatrice was really good at blocking/rationalizing each and every romantic gesture he made. He gives Beatrice the poesy ring to wear, still bearing the faint worn inscription "A vous et nul autre" - You and no other - yet Beatrice still doesn't see that he loves her. She disregards the two dozen red roses Gijs has delivered to her upon her return to England just because his note wasn't flowery with romantic sentiments. I did want to shake her when Gijs agrees with the vicar that there was "romance in the air" at their first meeting and she tartly rebukes him for it. His "[r]emind me if at any time in the future I should get a romantic notion in my head" is funny but also sad. I was afraid if she continued in this fashion she would wring every last drop of romance out of poor Gijs like water from a dishrag. I loved that Gijs begs her to wear white and a bridal veil for their wedding. And there's Gijs' sad sigh when he asks Beatrice if she's dreaming a little about their wedding, and her reply is less than inspiring - something about washing her hair and that she's sure she'll be "quite sensible again" by the time he returns to England. Gijs kisses her palm after their less than quiet wedding, yet she talks about Alicia, his daughter. Then, she's a little peeved that he's not holding her hand and whispering in her ear, but he hasn't had any encouragement, now, has he? One of the sweetest parts is when Gijs carries Beatrice over the threshold. In the 108 books of yours I've read, I think that's a first. I loved it! There were so many clues about his feelings, but Beatrice wasn't receptive.
You've created some great villainesses in your books, but I think none compare to Elisabeth the "old friend" of Waldo in The End of the Rainbow. I'm pretty sure she studied at the Mrs. Danvers School for Villains. So I was a little nervous when Mevrouw Mies van Trott was introduced as Gijs' "old friend." Surprisingly, she turned out not to be a rival for Gijs' affections, but that didn't stop him from using his relationship with Mies to prod Beatrice a little. Tom the Greedy Gus who gobbles all the sandwiches truly gets his just deserts when Mies ropes him in, doesn't he? Heroines may be confronted by the "other woman", but some of these ladies are forged in steel and can give as good as they get. For example, I laughed out loud when Prudence Makepeace and Christabel lob stinging salvos at each other while Haso ter Brons Huizinga referees:
“This is Christabel van Bijl—Christabel, this is Prudence Makepeace.”
“Ah, the English nurse.” Christabel smiled, her eyes like blue flints. “Haso has told me all about you.” She offered a limp hand and Prudence gave it a good hearty shake, and she made a show of rubbing it gently. “How strong you are—I’m sure my hand will be bruised! However, I dare say you need to be sturdy in your particular job.”
“Well, yes, but that’s a good thing, isn’t it? We can look after the weaklings.”
Haso said something which sounded like “Fifteen all.” (Chapter 3, Paradise For Two)
But tart tongues and stinging rejoinders are not just the purview of your heroines. Sometimes that sweet little grandmother of the hero issues forth with a surprising quip or two. For example, I loved Granny van Tijlen in The Gemel Ring. She's clearly championing Charity for her grandson, Everard, and even though he admits he's attracted to Charity he continues to take out that "whey faced van Stassen girl." Granny's patience with Everard is stretched to its limit with his refusal to cooperate, and the result is one of the best zingers ever with regard to his choice of dates: "She's only half alive, and the live half isn't at all to my liking." I loved Granny van Tijlen though she isn't someone I'd want for an enemy.
I chuckle at some of the names you gave to family retainers -butlers, cooks, gardeners, nannies, etc. - who do so much to keep things in apple pie order, but it's clear they aren't "servants." They are valued friends and family members. Like Mrs. Crisp in Tulips For Augusta, the mainstay for the Brown family. Or Prudence's godmother’s elderly maid, "a dour, middle-aged spinster with the unlikely name of Miss Pretty" who looks after Aunt Beatrix lovingly and fiercely in Paradise For Two. Or the care and effort Dr. Thomas Winter employs in Never Say Goodbye to return his old nanny, Mrs. Oblinski, from Poland to England. With Isobel's help, of course. Just as Bilder and his wife look after Gijs and Alicia so wonderfully in Holland and have for many years. It's easy to see they would indeed be lost without this couple. And I loved Toogood, the dignified young man who looks after Gijs' London pied-à-terre year round, who takes Alicia to the zoo or Madame Tussaud's when she visits England, who cooks delicious meals, and ensures all the beautifully treasured furnishings are well cared for, and who, as the family member he is, joins in a celebratory toast when Gijs and Beatrice become engaged.
In Wedding Bells for Beatrice, Gijs and Beatrice began crossing swords as they dance at a party, so I loved how you brought them full circle at the end, dancing together at a hospital ball, still a bit at odds with each other. She's wearing blue chiffon because that's Gijs' favorite color, and Gijs is breathtakingly handsome and dapper in white tie and tails. Beatrice is trying to un-muddle the mess she's made, but several attempts to talk to Gijs have failed. How fitting then that the last waltz finds them together on the dance floor, and Beatrice finally finding her voice, twisting the poesy ring round her finger, telling him at last that for her, there's only him and no other as he whirls her through an archway and on into a conservatory for a very romantic ending. Thank you for this wonderful book and a very memorable couple.
Thank you for how Lamborginis give "gentle snorts" and the way Bentleys and Rolls "tiptoe" around curvy roads. I love how bad guys' chins run into the fists of placid Dutch doctors and how the good doctors don't break a sweat or even breathe a little faster after whisking their heroines out of harm's way with one hand and using the other to flatten some sinister threat. I love reading "the cat investigated the balcony" and knowing that means the cat found the litter box. Or knowing that the descriptor of "plump" for heroines doesn't mean she needs to diet but has everything to do with having bosoms that do not resemble "salt cellars." I'm sure there's a very good reason why all those disastrously selfish first wives are sent fleeing to America where they invariably die in a plane crash, car accident, or other fiery end as just deserts for leaving the British/Dutch doctor to raise a child as a single parent. I do beg your pardon for any offense we Americans may have done which made you equate us with, well, a fiery pit of hell.
Thank you for writing all those heroines who pull on that well of inner strength to continue being efficient theater sister even though they long to run off to New Zealand/South America or at the very least hide in a closet for a bit of privacy to cry until their eyes are puffy and the tips of their noses are red. Like Loveday in Cruise To A Wedding, whose heart is breaking because the man she loves, Adam, has invited her to his engagement party. Yet there she is in theater, handing towels and clips, scalpel, forceps and swabs for a complicated abdominal operation just as efficiently as ever. I love those "uncrushable" dresses of jersey that are stuffed willy-nilly into an overnight bag and then emerge wrinkle-free and fetching enough on our heroine to catch someone's eye or that good tweed suit that may not be new but has timeless classic lines to serve in a pinch. Thank you for all those wonderful bits of poetry sprinkled throughout your books. The snippet Hugo quotes to Sarah in Fate Is Remarkable from John Donne's "The Sun Rising" is such a wonderful way for me, the reader, to know what Hugo is feeling. Or that moonlit walk Adam and Loveday enjoy in Cruise To A Wedding where Adam quotes Yeats' "The Song of the Wandering Aengus", and I know he recognizes his future is with Loveday.
Thank you for Beatrice, Prudence, Augusta, Sarah, Harriet, Daisy, Tabitha, Eugenia, Gijs, Constantijn, Friso, Hugo, Benedict, Paul, Julius, and dozens of others. Thank you for writing 138 books/novellas full of gentle humor, lovingly detailed descriptions of food, fashion, architecture, and geography sprinkled throughout each and every book. I feel sure I could use your books as a map were I traveling in England or The Netherlands, and I'd feel right at home in either place. Your love for these places shone through in every word. Thank you for all happy hours of reading pleasure, and wonderful books that are both comforting and comfortable.
Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451 that everyone leaves something behind when he/she dies. It could be a child, a painting, a house, or a book. But it has to be something that was touched with his/her hand so that there's a little part of them in that thing left behind when their hand is taken away. Put simply, he says the difference between one who mows lawns and a gardener is in that touch. "The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” There is a little of you, Betty Neels' essence, in each one of your books, a legacy that has touched the hearts of so many people, and like the gardener, will touch many more in the years to come. I know they've touched mine.
Your devoted fan,