After the magnificence of Henrietta’s Own Castle (the cat alone sent me into paroxysms of reader-joy … Henry in his tea cosy), I was ready for a gentler, quieter Neels and found it in A Star Looks Down. It’s so quiet and gentle, there’s an absence of OW (Other Woman, for those not used to rom-lingo) and the villain is a hardly-villainous ten-year-old. But there is really something quite lovely about the story of heroine Beth Partridge of the plain face and violet eyes and the laconically mild-mannered, patient Dr. Alexander van Zeust. Indeed, if there’s a nasty, it’s Beth’s brother, who takes advantage of her good nature, impeccable house-keeping, generous heart and hand, as he’s constantly asking for a fiver. He’s in medical training and Beth is paying his and her way on her nurse’s pay. But a generous offer comes from Alexander, who recognizes Beth’s nursing and personal worth and offers her a great sum to nurse his sister while she recuperates from an appendectomy and to care for her four young ones (while their father is away).
In the absence of other woman and mere references to vague but numerous girlfriends, from the get-go Alexander is aware of Beth’s rightness for his future wife before she is — even though her love for him is hopeless and she pines for most of the novel. Her care-giving stint is extended to a stay in Holland and Alexander has an opportunity to stay close to Beth and patiently bide his time before declaring himself. The reasons why are hazy, but psychologically astute. Alexander says to Beth, in one scene, that she’s afraid. Afraid of love? Of him? Of intimacy? It’s never explicitly discussed, but it is a moment of truth: Beth is afraid, of not living up to Alexander, of being less, of entering the enormity of a great love. I thought the subtlety of this wonderful. What I didn’t enjoy was Beth’s accumulated TSTL scenes: suffice to say, Beth is of the where-angels-fear-to-tread heroine variety, climbing cliffs and dangling over ravines, navigating stormy seas and plunging into icy North-Sea waters when she can barely swim.
But Betty still delivers in touches of sheer brilliance, with wit and humour. The more I read her, the more I notice these lovely writerly touches. When Beth and Alexander meet, Beth’s hand is “gently wrung” by the gentle giant. Beth’s sarcastic comment to her brother who sycophantically worships Dr. van Zeust, ” ‘Oh? Does he live on a pedestal or something? He seemed quite human to me.’ ” The lovely moment when Alexander murmurs, ” ‘I didn’t believe it, but they are violet’ ” about Beth’s “pansy” eyes. Alexander admires her beauty while she’s down on her Plain-Jane self. When she recognizes her worth, Alexander can claim her hand … though I’m not convinced she ever does, as the HEA takes place with Beth a bedraggled mess sacrificing herself on the altar of misplaced integrity. There is a remarkable scene, given Betty’s time and place, of an abortion gone badly, judgement-free, even sympathetic one would say. Also, Beth referring to Alexander’s nebulous girlfriends as “hussies”! A marvelous abandoned-horse rescue scene. A Star Looks Down is a flawed Betty, but still a Betty, always a good thing. Onto to #31, The Moon For Lavinia.