by Elizabeth Cadell
“Why don’t you settle down with a nice husband?” “Husband?” The horror in Rowena’s voice could have warmed the heart of any feminist. “Husband? My dear, I can’t afford one! Look what they cost to feed nowadays!”
“Kitty Long—you remember her?—is going to have yet another operation.” “Another! She’s had two!” “Yes. She says she enjoyed the last two so much that she’s looking forward to the third. I forget what they’re slicing off this time, but it’s coming off from her inside, but as I told her, there can’t be much left to hack off. The woman must be a mere shell. Doctors!” Rowena’s scorn filled the large kitchen. “I’ve told Kitty that every time this doctor of hers wants to take his family off for a holiday, he gets the money by advising all his women patients to have operations. How else do you think surgeons live in the style they do? By chopping up all these rich, idle and half-witted women like Kitty. Every time she eats something that disagrees with her, that man hacks out another bit of her inside. And diet! First he got her off decent meals and on to nuts and carrots and shredded horse-food. Then when all that chewing made her teeth wear out, he switched her on to fruit juices and disgusting-looking squashy vegetable mixtures. Then he put her on to bread that’s got nothing in it but cement and chaff. All between operations, of course.
That quote is long and has nothing to do with the plot, but was just one example of the delightful treasures that this book is full of.
I think this may now be my most favorite Elizabeth Cadell, supplanting The Corner Shop. The romance was better in TCS, but the mystery, character development, complexities, humor, family dynamics, and the quirky secondary characters were so good in this one.
Julian Hurst is from a very conventional background where the family law firm has provided a good and respectable living for generations. But he had a talent for art and eventually became an art dealer which he is very good and successful at. All of the characters in this novel are deftly drawn to a “T” with affection and humor. James is a pretty good guy, raised in a common sense manner, but he is very “cock-sure”. He is not used to being anything but successful and getting whatever he wants with a minimum of effort. Yes, things have come easily for Julian and he leads a very nice footloose and fancy-free kind of life and plans to continue to do so until he is 30, at which time he will find a wife and settle down. But, as John Lennon said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The family law firm asks him to go to Yorkshire to catalog a Mr. Randall’s art collection. He reluctantly complies when he hears that the collection reportedly includes some “good” Clauvals. Clauval is an artist who is experiencing something of a renaissance but is quite mysterious due to the lack of knowledge about him and because he is responsible for painting both masterpieces and valueless junk. He figures he will just suck it up, stop there for a few days, do his work, and continue up to Scotland to visit his godmother who is throwing one of her fun house parties.
Mr. Randall proves to be mean and hard and conditions at the rambling old house are spartan which Julian is not used to and does not like. But he does like the miserly client’s young, beautiful, and charming new cook. In fact, much to his surprise and consternation, he falls head over heels in love with her. She is the one. And she loves him too, despite Julian noticing that she sometimes looks at him, not as a knight in shining armor, but with secret amusement as if she sees all of his faults and foibles. Julian proposes and Alexandra, after a few kindly expressed reservations, accepts. He can’t wait to introduce her to his loving family. But first, he decides to take a kind of breather to get used to the idea that his well-laid comfortable plans for his life have been dramatically upturned. He might be just a bit unsure, despite his happiness. So he adheres to his original plan to visit his Scottish godmother and her house party, leaving Alexandra behind. He can hardly introduce his fiance to his godmother before his own mother, can he? She says she is fine with that. When his godmother sees how miserable he is without Alexandra she gets the whole story.
“Did she oppose the idea of your coming here?” “No. She was wonderful.” He found the grey, wise old eyes raised to his with what he saw, to his astonishment, was a look of worry. “She—? What did you say, Julian, my dear?” “I said she didn’t mind.” “She—” His godmother took off her glasses once more and polished them absently. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” she said softly. “Oh, my poor, poor Julian!”
She declares that no woman of intelligence and spirit would stand for such a “selfish trick” and throws Julian into a panic. The frightened and chastened Julian rushes off on a nightmare journey back to Alexandra while the Scottish winter decides to teach this “insolent Londoner” a thing or two, in a bit of whimsical and delightful writing. After Winter throws all its hostility and caprice at him, sure enough, when he arrives back at the old mansion he finds the mean owner dead of a heart attack, and Alexandra gone. With the 4 valuable Claudels that he discovered. The London address she gave him does not exist.
For the rest of the book, we follow Julian in his desperate search for his fiance. The Clauvals start to appear on the market one by one, but strangely, only in places that Julian is sure to hear about or see them. One is even brought to the Hurst family home when Julian is out. What is Alexandra up to? He (and we) know that she is incapable of stealing or doing anything bad. He follows clue after clue, and he learns that Mr. Randall’s deaf, frail, and scrupulously loyal and honest old butler of 40 years is involved somehow. As one step leads to another away from his old habits and ways, we travel across England with Julian, share in his adventures, and meet a number of amusing English eccentrics, each more entertaining and dotty than the last. Julian’s sister has a baby, he is thrown out of the hospital by an irate nurse, we attend a horrifying to Julian, but hilarious to the reader, lunch with 80 schoolgirls where he is the only male for miles around. We learn a lot about each member of his family and Julian. In one scene, he sweetly agrees to babysit his young nephew, who wants a bedtime story about “cheeses.” Julian cooperatively starts on about dairy maids and Gorgonzola only to be admonished by little Danny that he meant “Jesus,” not “cheeses.” It was an unexpected and funny scene. And Julian learns a lot and develops some much-needed strength of character. When the light finally dawns, we wonder what took him so long, as does Alexandra, and so she tells him.
“Could I help it,” asked Alexandra, “if you were stupid? Could I?”…“Are you really going to marry him, Alexandra? asked Rowena. “Yes, I am, I think,” said Alexandra. “He isn’t what I hoped for, but I’ve always heard that a clever girl can mold a man.”
But even the reader isn’t prepared for a couple of final twists. At least I was a bit blown away. The book is full of whimsical descriptions, lovely people, wisdom, and entertaining side trips. Julian and Alexandra are apart for 90% of the book, but I was never impatient or bored. But those who prefer one of Ms. Cadell’s more conventional romances or family stories might want to skip over this one. But don’t, you will love it.