The book I am working to finish is in its third trimester, which for me is always the slow-down sticky place in the process. This is where I overthink far too much and put to paper far too little–regardless how I feel about the story as a whole–and wind up noodling through several aimless days before putting my nose back to the grindstone. There’s no compelling reason or rationale as to why this happens other than it’s when I feel most vulnerable as a writer. But that’s an entire post (or whole blog!) all its own.
My aimless noodling this round has been delving into a reread of the many Betty Neels Harlequin romance titles I own. She represents my introduction to Romance, the nascent concepts I had for writing Romance, and endures as a favorite. Owing to and despite her chaste and tenacious revisits of a scant few types and tropes. Reading her work is like visiting an old friend, replete with comfortable conversation, reassuring treatment, and a warmly rewarding end. It should also be noted–in no small part due to its notability–that Neels began writing at 60 after retiring from nursing and subsequently had 134 novels published. Inspiring and remarkable!
If anyone is unfamiliar with the work of Betty Neels, I would describe it as “written by someone whose favorite novel/movie is Rebecca and maintains a quaintly old-fashioned view of how life ought best be lived.” When you cozy up with a Neels novel, you’re settling in for a Vintage Harlequin read–even those she wrote in the 80’s and 90’s. Time marches on. Neelsdom is eternal.
I described these days as “aimless noodling,” and that’s correct. There’s nothing concrete to show for them (except all the chores done I would have happily put off during productive writing days). But thanks to my peccadilloes, the noodling is not without organized focus. To mount this actively purposeful reread, I identified it as a Project and treated it thus. There’s a spreadsheet with colored cells for titles owned, titles reread, titles rated, titles to keep and those to give away. There are orderly stacks of Betty Neels books bedside, so I can keep them in order to match the spreadsheet. There’s also some lost hours and funds on eBay adding to this library I’m not admitting to at this time.
As a dutiful completionist I sought out a definitive bibliography for Mrs Neels to build the spreadsheet around. This led me to the inevitable wiki page, which in turn led me to discover the incredibly delightful blog The Uncrushable Jersey Dress. What a wonderful stumble-upon! I had found (albeit belatedly) my people! My–as they call themselves–Bettys. To my further delight the Bettys equaled my enthusiasm for Mrs Neels and conveyed this with no shortage of smarts and snark. The cherry atop the marvelous concoction of thick cake generously laden with nuts and chocolate and lashings of cream? A Betty review for each Betty book.
Take me shopping for a camelhair topcoat and feed me a delicious dinner at a quietly posh restaurant, I’m that pleased.
All elements were coming together to make my seek-information, collate-information, mull-information, get-organized-then-more-organized brain very, very happy. I could read a book on my own, ponder it, then read the Betty review, and after tinker at perfecting the spreadsheet.
It’s early days yet and I am reading chronologically. Yesterday I finished A Star Looks Down. Afterward I trotted to Uncrushable’s review. Imagine my surprise at finding such a storm of controversy in the comments! (I am not, however, surprised at the passion shown nor the articulate arguments made.) I enjoy this novel but it’s not a favorite. My feelings about this book are conflicted, as are the other Bettys’, but mine for different reasons than discussed in the review. That of course got me to thinking on why, then thinking a little more, until I was mentally drafting a comment and replies while washing the dishes.
So I put the kettle on, brewed a strong pot of tea and set out the biscuits, and at last opened WordPress.
Let’s talk about that why, and how it differs.
I recommend you first read the lovely Betty Review, as it offers a fuller synopsis and observation of the issues than I’ll compact in a paragraph or few here. But know our heroine is Beth (a plain girl acting temporary nanny), our hero is Alexander (the ubiquitous Neels Rich Dutch Doctor-Surgeon), and events conspire to happen. What’s important and causing this reader conflict isn’t the exact plot, it’s the disjointed ending.
The book transpires in two parts and two locales. The first in London where we meet Beth and her brother William, who leads her to meeting and working for Alexander. The second we hie off to Holland where Beth fulfills her temporary nanny duties and falls in for sure love with Alexander. (There’s a subthread of dastardly step-siblings to Beth and William, but it’s immaterial to the botched ending.)
Dirk, ten years old and the eldest of the children Beth is nannying, plays mischief a few times in the story. It causes trouble for Beth, but each time Beth is worthy and doesn’t tell on Dirk. Alexander is left to figure out the mischief and reason for it on his own, which he reliably does. The ending set pieces are built on Dirk’s final big act of mischief that embroils them all: a stolen sailboat, anger and worry, then a beaten hasty retreat with followed hard upon reclaiming.
On a soon-to-be-stormy afternoon, Dirk encourages his siblings onto a sailboat and puts out while Beth is distracted passing a hello with a convenient happenstance character. Beth becomes aware, abandons her idle chitchat and her shoes, dives in and managed to get on board. No one knows how to sail, but they do their best. The whole episode ends with Alexander having to rescue them, late in the night, from a far-flung village pier. He’s angry with Beth. Angry, harsh, and unforgiving.
But once again, Beth is worthy and won’t explain what happened–even after they’ve returned home and Alexander’s anger has spent itself and she’s given a second, then a third chance. It’s important to mention once home again, Alexander’s sister appears on scene. She’s lazily hysterical and cannot believe Beth would behave in such a reckless, endangering fashion. She doesn’t outright condemn Beth, but in light of everything that’s happened, Beth says it’s probably best she leave. No one immediately contradicts this assertion. She gathers her battered pride and runs for the hills. Later Alexander gets the true story out of Dirk and goes after her, all the way to England, where we get our now too complicated HEA.
Many a Betty feel these events quite keenly through Beth’s hurt and confusion: why, with Dirk’s mischievous past, would Alexander automatically hold Beth responsible and blame her? Need he be so intractable? They don’t blame Beth for her silent outrage and hurt in the face of Odious Alexander. Uncrushable reader Betty Magdalen came closest in her comments to matching my thoughts; she is far more sympathetic toward Alexander, and with sound reason. He understandably held Beth responsible given she’s the adult in the situation, he only has so much information to go on, and after his initial anger he softens and is willing to talk things out. Here it’s Beth who becomes intractable, and she refuses.
This puts the Bettys in two camps. Blame Alexander! for initially being such a reactive ogre, and Blame Beth! for being too stubborn to bend and explain. I’m in a third camp. My umbrage was never in blame laid on Beth or Alexander–rather I put it on our dear Venerable Betty herself.
Dear Venerable Betty, like everyone, has a few foibles in her writing habits. One I have noticed the through years of reading her is the distinct lack of seizing opportunity to make parallels, or use of what I thought for certain was a Thing Purposefully Mentioned so it could later be a pivot point. This happens more than once quite glaringly in A Star Looks Down, and causes the entire romance and its characters to lose their effectiveness.
Key elements established before we get to the Horrid Sailboat Incident:
- Beth’s younger brother. He isn’t a bad sort really, but he’s also a loutish sponge. She affectionately indulges him despite this. He is the device to get her the nanny job and into Alexander’s life.
- Alexander’s sister (who Beth nannys for). She is rarely on scene. We get the sense she’s not a bad sort really, but she’s spoiled and not very nice. He affectionately indulges her despite this.
- Dirk feels threatened by Beth–she is garnering attention from Alexander he holds as his preserve–and so he causes mischief. Alexander is willing to get things sorted even if initial blame has been mislaid.
- Alexander has acted the Big Dashing Hero by rescuing for Beth her beloved childhood pets, two elderly horses. He more than proves himself here, has his important dependable man and knight-in-shining moments, and gives sound reason for Beth to be completely besotted. This satisfying proving occurs somewhere mid-book.
- Beth is in love with Alexander. She tells him such outright, and not during a heated moment. He goes into the final act of the book aware of this truth.
Now, to the joining of all the above rambling.
I argue there was no need for Beth to dramatically flee the scene and Alexander’s subsequent pursuit. I can only think Neels sweated making word count or feared there somehow just wasn’t enough careening of emotion and setting as yet–and didn’t have a content editor who felt it necessary to question her decisions–because the means to create a dramatic and satisfying end were already in place.
There was no need for an Admission Under Duress. She had already made her endearing admission, which removes the impetus to have Beth run so she could be found again and blurt out the I Love You. There was no need for The Heroic Gesture of Alexander pursuing Beth to world’s end (well, a train station platform) to reclaim her. Alexander already did that, commandingly and worthy of a swoon or two, when he rescued Beth’s elderly horses.
The brother also acts as a wonderful foil to Alexander, to allow Beth to realize love doesn’t have to be tolerant and labored in providing, but can claim its own reward back. He is also there as a ready parallel for Alexander’s sister. She’s spoiled, not always kind, but he’s a bit blind to that, so when he goes to comfort her after the confrontation, Beth interprets it as a snub and Alexander’s chosen loyalty.
Neels’ necessary motive to separate them before the final HEA scene was there. She could easily have put the irrational, repelling action on the sister (she in part did but negated that by turns). Heretofore absent and clearly willing to allow Beth all care of her own children, saying something to the effect, “How dare you, Alexander don’t allow her to remain another moment, be gone!”
Beth could have been given a moment of pluck without directly snitching–and our dear Great Betty hated a snitch–on Dirk in front of the boy’s mother. She could say something to the effect of “like the prior incidents of mischief all isn’t what one naturally assumes” in a firm but not accusatory manner. Alexander would know what she was alluding to, and it would make him think twice about the situation.
Alexander would frown, in that particular to Large Rich Dutchmen Doctor-Surgeon way, then bid Beth stay put while he goes to settle his sister.
Instead Beth would flee, taking this as evidence Alexander was putting everyone’s feelings and version of events above her own. Of course a distraught but determined Alexander would go after her, and allow her to run smack into his vast handsomeness in a place secluded and entirely their own, so they could have their explanations, declarations, and at lasts. Thankfully they would still be near home, and with his reassurance and reassuring presence, they’d return for restorative fireside tea, a plate piled with sandwiches and fairy cakes, and implied gentle canoodling.
It’s that simple!
We readers already liked them both immensely, and liked knowing they liked each other. We like who they’d been and who they were becoming as the plot unwound. But from the Horrid Sailboat Incident on, they were moved like chess pieces instead of the independent characters we’d developed such fondness for. Their separate actions and reactions to the Horrid Sailboat Incident weren’t entirely off or lacking personal credulity unto themselves, but became so abruptly escalated, the story needed more than the authorial “because I said so” it got to satisfactorily resolve. The story’s end betrayed the characters, a betrayal made worse by how charming as people, and sweet a couple, Beth and Alexander presented up to the contrivances.
As a reader I’m disappointed. I love so many details and moments and things shared in this tale! But Beth and Alexander had the story they deserved ruined by a one too many flourishes ending. My spreadsheet line for this book is tepid with cooler color tones and a question mark in the “Keep” column.
As a writer I’m reminded of the importance of truth. No amount of zing or excitement inserted into the plot is worth undermining the integrity of the people we painstakingly create, because no grand gesture or sweeping event can make up for the disappointment of a betrayed character and their readers. (And if it does come down to a matter of word count, instead of tacking onto the end, go back and add where it makes sense!)
For now I’m setting A Star Looks Down aside to continue my owned titles reread. When I’m to the sort-keep-rid point in the Project I’ll revisit whether or not it’s earned remaining in my physical library. But if kept it will be with the caveat “I pretend it ended as I rewrote it in my imagination.” Which, while a workable fix, does not a whole book make. Something else to keep in mind as I eyeball the grindstone and open my neglected novel draft file.