It was a pineapple given to her by a grateful patient that led Eloise Bennett to meeting the Dutch doctor Timon van Zeilst. Shortly after that, Eloise went to Holland to nurse a patient and there was Dr. van Zeilst again! Thrown into his company, Eloise soon realized that she loved him. But Timon was going to marry the beautiful Liske—so why would he look twice at Eloise?
The publisher’s blurb seemingly says it all; and yet, there’s so much more to this Neels romance than at first appears. To start, it was perfection until one terrible, of-its-time moment at the end. Unlike most of Neels’s romances, which have a fairly narrow scope, Pineapple Girl has a great sweep of setting changes and scenes of breathtaking romantic élan, starting with the meet-cute, possibly Neels’s best accidental “meets.” There have been so many Neels romances where the hero and heroine meet thanks to an accident of some sort, motor or otherwise, something, or someone is smashed up and they work together to put things aright. In this case, when Eloise is gifted the pineapple and is hurrying through the hospital with it, it is “smashed” by Timon’s shoe: “She frowned and lifted her chin because he has begun to smile a little, and that was a great pity, because she took a step which wasn’t there and fell flat on her face. The knitting cushioned her fall, but the pineapple bounded ahead and landed with a squashy thump on the man’s shoe, denting itself nastily.”
This Great Pineapple Crush leads to one of Betty’s most glorious hero-gifts-the-heroine (I’ve written elsewhere about this), he sends a fruit basket to her home, which she shares with her mother in straitened circumstances:
“That pineapple, dear — was there something special about it?’
‘Just a pineapple, Mother.’
‘Yes, I know that — but a special delivery man called after lunch with a Fortnum and Mason basket, I opened it because all the man said was “name of Bennett”, the way they always do — and it’s crammed with fruit: three pineapples and grapes and these enormous pears and apples … there’s a note.’
She handed an envelope to her daughter and didn’t say a word while Eloise opened it and read the brief note inside: ‘Allow me to offer compensation for the damage done by my foot this morning.’ The signature was unintelligible and it was addressed to the Pineapple Girl.
What is wonderful about this moment, key in all great romance, is its recognition and promise, even before a bonefide “relationship” is established between hero and heroine, irrespective of conflict and obstacles, necessary for a great yarn. Too much of romance has devolved to sexual desire and satisfaction denoting emotional fulfillment. In this scene and the Fortnum and Mason reference, Neels shorthands the promise of sensuality in the fruit, their expense to let us know the heroine will have a life of plenty, comfort, and security; most importantly, it shorthands recognition: “I see you. You saw me. We will be together because I can give you all life has to offer.” Anthropology understands the cultural significance and importance of gift-exchange: Neelsian romance does too, as it shows how the hero must offer meaningful gifts, but the heroine is the gift of herself. Is it bourgeois? (I see you Fortnum and Mason.) Yes. Is it feminist? It depends on how you define your feminism. Is it romantic? Absolutely. And it’s to the latter the genre owes its allegiance.
And never doubt Betty is perfectly capable of sexual frissons. As Eloise packs her apartment to go to Holland with Timon, they share a impromptu meal in the near-empty flat:
‘It’s rather primitive,’ she apologised as she laid the table with the odds and ends of crockery it hadn’t been worth packing, and cut bread for toast.
‘I am a primitive man,’ he observed blandly, and went on looking bland when she laughed.
I found this moment incredibly sexy and touching somehow: the scene’s innocuous domesticity is nevertheless intimate and Timon’s quip “I am a primitive man” hints at sexual prowess and the promise of Eloise’s fulfillment beyond a mere fruit basket, even if is from Fortnum and Mason. 😉
As I said previously, Pineapple Girl has a big-ole romance arc as Eloise moves from her London hospital and flat, to her village, to Holland, back to England, and near the end, after being estranged from Timon because OW, at a Cumbrian boys school acting as temporary matron, where Timon finds her. There is quite an honest account of how the boys bully one of the smaller, younger, bespectacled ones, a math-genius by the marvellous name of Smith Secundus. [Spoiler ahead, but also CW] When Smith Secundas is driven to attempt suicide on one of the school’s treacherous ledges, Timon comes to the rescue when he arrives to find the small figure and Eloise perched precariously. Smith’s “incident” is dismissed as “silly” and I balked. It diminished the HEA of what was, up to this point, a perfect romance.