I’m away at RWA Nationals this week, but before I got there, I did get my TBR Challenge book read for the month. This month we’re reading a romance classic, whether that be a classic book, author, trope, what have you. Betty Neels’ 1984 Heidelberg Wedding was my pick because Neels is certainly one of the classics. Her books from Harlequin stand out not only because she took certain plot points and made them her own, but also because she has an idiosyncratic voice. I find her writing hit or miss, but this particular story was a very fun read and I’d probably give it a solid B.
Anyone familiar with Neels will guess that this book is a medical romance with some kind of tie-in to the Netherlands – and you’d be half right. Eugenia Smith serves as Ward Sister in a London Hospital, which Gerard Grenfell is shown very obviously as a top surgeon there (that’s right – no Dutch hero this time!). Even though our hero is not a Dutchman for once, he is still described as having “lint-fair hair,” a description I’ve encountered in several Neels novels even if I’ve never seen it anywhere else. And it works. I wouldn’t normally think of looking like lint as a positive, but Neels makes it seem like a good thing.
We learn early on that Eugenia is tall, with a very curvy figure. In fact, she’s described in various places as “generously built” or “a hefty girl.” And where we have a sturdy heroine, there’s bound to be a willowy stick of a woman contending for the hero’s affections. True to form, Neels has Gerard engaged to an elegant willowy blonde at the beginning of the story. Not to be left out, Eugenia is engaged as well. The object of her affections, Humphrey Parsons, is a registrar at the hospital and I have to say it’s been years since I’ve come across a bigger stick-in-the-mud in fiction.
Humphrey is determined to save up enough money to buy a home and have all the extras, like matching furniture and dishes, before actually going through with marriage. Apparently the idea of going through those early years with furnishings handed down from relatives with varying degrees of taste and colorblindness just does not work for our Humphrey. Oh, and he also has Mother Issues. Humphrey may live on his own in London, but whenever he has time off, his and Eugenia’s dates seem to consist of visiting Mother. Mother disapproves of Eugenia and lives to manipulate while proclaiming her own helplessness. It’s all very over the top, so a large part of the fun in this book comes from wondering what dreadful stunt Humphrey and Mother will pull next.
Gerard, of course, stands out in stark contrast. He’s confident, wealthy(of course – Neels’ heroes always have money), and definitely not as fussy as Humphrey. It’s pretty obvious even from early conversations that he’s drawn to Eugenia and even as they recognize again and again that they’re engaged to other people, Gerard and Eugenia clearly have chemistry and their working relationship deepens into a subtle flirtation. The plotting in this book is a little weak, as the action jolts back and forth from London to Portugal, back to London and finally off to Heidelberg. There’s a lot happening in the story so the action can sometimes feel choppy. However, Gerard’s ever more determined pursuit of Eugenia and the continuing antics of Eugenia and Humphrey make for entertaining reading.
As is characteristic of Neels, this book may have been written and ostensibly set in the mid-1980s, but the social mores and behaviors of the characters have more of a 1950s/early 1960s feel to them. That throwback, as well as Neels’ sometimes old-fashioned style of writing, gives her better books a somewhat otherworldly feeling. Heidelberg Wedding, even if a bit flawed, is still one of those and it really does read like a fairytale.
– Lynn Spencer