The Fortunes of Francesca (Betty Neels)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is on the better end of Betty Neels’ books (see the “Other Things to Know” section where I talk about how the author’s a genre unto herself). There’s your damsel in distress (this time with an ailing aunt, an evil villain for an uncle, and a brother going to medical school) and the hero who rescues her (a doctor, which is standard in Betty Neels novels). It’s got all the elements that someone who likes Neels would enjoy: lots of old-world, traditional sentimentality, lots of food and tea, and a hero who wants nothing more than to protect the heroine by rescuing her from her family, showering her with nice clothes, and feeding her (these books aren’t really action-packed, but you always know what you’re getting with Neels).

Greater Detail:
Franny is a quiet but strong-willed young woman who is determinedly optimistic about life. Orphaned at a young age, she and her brother were brought up by an elderly aunt who has fallen ill. Franny gives up nursing school and takes a job working for a termagant of a woman, Lady Trumper, because it gives them enough to get by, and allows her younger brother Finn to concentrate on medical school.

Betty Neels always has a lot of bad-luck events, e.g. the aunt’s condition gets worse (which is where our medical hero will become useful), Franny increasingly annoys Lady Trumper (who’s one of those selfish, grasping women) and eventually gets fired… so that we can have the appropriately pragmatic hero step in, initially to help out, but eventually, as the love interest.

Part of what I like about Neels in general, and this story in particular, is that there are never any loose ends. Characters are only introduced with purpose, and everything always ties together nicely, with a moral, a bow, and a happily-ever-after. None of her books are action-packed or even particularly distinguishable from one another, but in terms of non-sensual, comforting, soothing books, I’ve never read a better example than Neels.

Other Things to Know:
You could say that romances in general always have a lot in common – the girl gets the guy, and they always sail off into the sunset.  Paranormal romances have ghosts and vampires in the background, while regencies always have earls, the ton, and ballroom gowns. But Betty Neels’ novels have so much in common with one another that they’re almost a genre unto themselves.  I’ve read almost everything she’s published, and I think out of 100+ books, there are really probably fewer than 10 that don’t feature a doctor/surgeon/medical professor as the protagonist, and the heroines are always either nurses or, barring that, work as some nurse’s aide at some point (so that she can cross paths with the doctor). Most of the females tend to be plain (so that we can relate to them more easily, as they’re not ravishing beauties?) and they almost always have memorably beautiful eyes framed by long lashes.  More often than not, there is some scheming, sophisticated woman who’s also pursuing our doctor, whom the heroine sees as a real threat, but who ends up being too hard-edged, too self-absorbed, too modern, really, for the hero in question.

The love story is almost a backdrop – always there, but kind of left behind within the everyday routines of having tea, shopping for clothes (there is always clothes shopping, envy of women with better clothes, etc) and food descriptions (the restaurants they go to, or food that the dedicated cooks prepare, from cucumber sandwiches to lobster claws and apple pies with cream).  As I said, it’s a genre unto itself; she’s an author I find to be very comforting and comfortable to read, but it’s not your normal everyday romance novel in the sense that there won’t be a lot of kisses, unmitigated passion, or even gradual realizations of feelings.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
If you’re willing to talk about Betty Neels in terms of her ability to offer comfortable/comfort romance, where a kiss is the most passionate thing that might happen and where the romance is almost secondary to the daily tasks of the day (having tea, going on walks, rescuing kittens and whatnot), the closest I can think would be someone like Georgette Heyer, though that’s set in the regency era and Betty Neels’ romances are more or less present-day (think 1990s). I think most people either find her soothing or like the boringest writer ever… (I find her soothing!)

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