While always happy to add another Betty to my Great Betty Read endeavour, reading A Gem Of A Girl didn’t come easily and I dragged it over weeks and weeks. Unlike most Betties, this had the Other Man in place of the Other Woman, which I thought would be a refreshing reversal on one of romance’s, and Betty’s, most tired conventions. And yet, I didn’t love it: I recognized Gem‘s virtues, but didn’t relish reading it. It started out great with the nurse-heroine, long-suffering from taking care of something like ten younger siblings, loses her job when the long-term care home where she works burns to the ground. There’s a great heroic scene where Gemma practically runs into the flames and is pulled back by the hero, Ross, a visiting Dutch doctor:
“It’s my ward,” she cried, “the wind’s blowing that way. Oh, my dear old ladies!” She leapt forward and was brought up short by a large hand catching at the back of her sweater.
“Before you rush in and get yourself fried to a crisp, tell me where the fire escape is?” Gemma wriggled in a fury of impatience, but he merely gathered more sweater into his hand.
Now, isn’t that marvellous? Only in England to consult with Gemma’s doctor neighbour, after rescuing old ladies from immolation, Ross invites Gemma to Holland where he needs someone to care for his ill sister. Gemma is soon caught up in the life of his wonderful, loving, caring family. She feels centred and happy in Ross’s home, but there’s a snake in the grass named Leo, a “modern” young man who pursues Gemma plain and plump, a double-whammy of unmarriagability in the Bettyverse.
Except for the constantly putting-herself-down Gemma, I liked her. She had the qualities of the best of the Betty-heroines: Gemma was kind, loyal, steadfast, and wonderful at caring for others. I liked Ross too. Oh, he retained the Betty-hero quality of keeping his heart’s desire, the heroine of course, close to his heart. In this case, it made sense. Gemma falls in love with Leo, who is playing with her emotions and leading her down unsavory paths, like foreign foods and wild, jiggly dancing and a crowd both fast and superficial. It made sense because Ross waits and watches: lets Gemma figure things out for herself, learn what it is to “fall in love”, impermanent and founded on sand, compared to loving someone, permanent and founded on the bedrock of devotion. Ross does some cool stuff, like knock Leo’s teeth out. What turned me off A Gem Of A Girl was that Gemma spent too much time, and thus too much narrative time, with Leo and the supercilious fast set. Scenes waltzing with Ross and relishing fluffy soufflées (notice how in every Betty-book, a soufflée is sure to be consumed?) I was relieved when Leo disappeared into that good-orthodontist night and Ross took over, but I wanted less of the former. Picky on my part to be averse to a Betty, but I can’t say this one is going into the rereading pile.