REVIEW: The Fifth Day of Christmas by Betty Neels
For her own sake she had to back off
It hadn’t taken Julia Pennyfeather long to fall in love with Ivo van den Werff
But as soon as she met Marcia Jason she realized she had to fall out of love just as quickly. Clearly the other woman had a much stronger claim on Ivo’s affection—or did she?
Knowing nothing about it in particular, I picked this Neels book because it’s time to start dusting off the Christmas reading. Hmmm, I’ll have to be honest Neelsfans, and say that, despite some aspects I liked, this one didn’t flow so easily off my ereader. There were times when I set it down and debated continuing. But Julia is described as beautiful, Ivo is only 30 and wow, Julia can speak her mind! In the end I persevered and was rewarded.
Nurse Julia Pennyfeather is caring for her first difficult patient as our story begins. For some reason, Julia has been able to deal with a young diabetic patient who has had various setbacks during her hospital convalescence as well as trying the patience of all the other nurses. When it’s time for her to go home to Scotland and Julia has just resigned from her job, Julia takes on the task of getting Mary to Drumlochie House. I adore that name.
A snowstorm straight out of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition strands them once they arrive and since the wind has taken the electric lines and phone as well as delayed the arrival of Mary’s new nurse, Julia and crew have to stay. The first night, a pounding on the door brings Doctor Ivo van den Werff into her life. For a few days, they contrive to take care of Mary while Julia does double duty as house cook since the loyal, ancient retainer seems able to do little else but make dire predictions about the weather. Good thing Julia can whip up bread as well as fry bacon. She’s a wonder.
Ivo then makes a proposal. He needs a capable nurse to go back to Holland with him to take care of a young woman who developed polio and has been recuperating at the family home. Will Julia accept a ridiculous amount of money to do the job? Facing either going to stay as a nurse drudge with her sister-in-law, stuffed shirt brother and a lump who everyone assumes she’ll marry or going to Holland with a handsome, kind man who is throwing wads of money at her, Julia grabs her passport and they take the night boat over.
The van den Werff home is comfortable and the family greet her with open arms. Vader van den Werff is a darling and sister Jornia is such fun. It’s the patient who’s the pill. Marcia Jason is a spiteful fraud who thinks she has the household bamboozled with her wan “brave, little me” act and her protestations of not being able to do more than drum her fingers on one of her Greek language books. We know from the get-go that Marcia hates Julia and loses no opportunities to say nasty put-downs about Our Heroine. Bitch. Those who have watched “The Brady Bunch” might remember the episode where middle sister Jan despairs of her older sister’s accomplishments and cries “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” That’s what I mentally substituted for the Bitch’s name from this point out.
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” and Ivo appear to have some kind of “thing” going on. But with the van den Werff family’s faultless manners it can be hard to tell. Julia settles down to dealing with “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” while getting to know the local countryside, getting lost on a cold winter day which seems to infuriate Ivo, learning some Dutch, meeting the rest of the van den Werff family and their friends, enjoying the shopping and the Christmas party where everyone is “gyrating in a more up-to-date fashion” to music on the CD player No, I’m not making up that last bit.
But what is the relationship between Ivo and “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”? Frankly, the book spent a bit too much time on this and the plot seemed stuck in the mud spinning its wheels about it. Ivo is so well mannered that Julia can’t be sure but she thinks he doesn’t love “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” Or maybe he does. From little glances and adroitly managed actions, she thinks Vader van den Werff dislikes the idea of his son marrying this skinny, harpy bitch and Julia knows that sister Jornia loathes “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” It never seems to cross Julia’s mind that a principled man like Ivo would not kiss her as much as he does and with as much gusto as he does if he planned on marrying another women. Nope, she never even thinks that. Yeah, this got to be a slog.
Then, at last, the medical emergency arrives. It’s polio (remember the book was originally written in the early 1970s) and it’s all medical personnel on deck to deal with a mass inoculation of neighboring villages. Julia shines like a beacon in the night and can talk CSF cultures with Ivo while assisting with the jabs. But “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” isn’t finished yet and after Julia catches her canoodling with her intellectual man friend who has been slinking around the house, she announces that no, she doesn’t want Ivo but she’ll be sure Julia never gets him. Like I said – Bitch.
It’s here that Ivo’s faultless manners get them both into trouble and not being sure of where she stands, Julia makes a stand – of sorts. Ivo must finally come up to scratch and win Julia over with the gift that is given on “The Fifth Day of Christmas.” Okay so Ivo comes up trumps here but man, it took him a long time to finally get there.
Ivo had halted the car. He got out and went round the bonnet, helped her out and took her arm and started walking over the bone-hard ground towards the woods.
“So did I, my dear darling, at least my heart did-to you.” He stopped and turned her round to face him, then bent his head and kissed her mouth.
“That’s not quite true,” he said a long minute later, “I lost it when you opened the door at Drumlochie House and told me in your lovely voice to hurry up and come in out of the cold. My Julia, I’ve not been cold since because you warm me with your sweetness and gaiety and beauty. But it was here I found you curled up asleep and I knew when I saw you that I couldn’t go on without you. I’ve brought you here to tell you so.”
I’m glad I stuck this one out but a bit less of the Nasty, Other Woman would have helped move this along. It was fun to read about a Neels’ heroine who isn’t a mousy frump and can speak up for herself and to have a younger hero. I’m still trying to wipe out the image of a houseful of Dutch people gyrating at a Christmas party, though. B