neels There are certain books with which I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Perhaps love-unease might be a better way to describe it, because I’m not sure my feelings ever quite fall to the level of hate. My love-hate books tend to be those which are unabashedly retro in their outlook, so I suspect my unease comes more from who I am rather than from the books all by themselves. I don’t speak here of the rape and/or abuse romances of old that I’ve discussed, but of some of the books I like that really are throwbacks to a very old-fashioned view of relationships.

For example, I’ll willingly confess to my Harlequin Presents habit. However, as a rather independent professional woman, I have to admit to a certain amount of discomfort with the whole “alpha billionaire sweeps dainty heroine off her feet and into a life of luxury” fantasy. Though there are definitely exceptions, the heroes in this line tend to be quite domineering, the settings exotic, the heroines delicate and fluttery. The plotting features over the top drama (think secret babies, forced marriages, dramatic business takeovers, amnesiac pregnant mistresses – well, you get it), and the dynamic between hero and heroine has a definite retro feel. And that’s not even getting into the bizarre plot acrobatics sometimes required to ensure that most of these heroines hold on to their virginity so that the hero can be swept away by magic virgin sex and they’ll live happily ever after.

The books where the hero feels the need to “possess” the heroine fit quite well into the HP line as do heroines who have led uncommonly sheltered lives. Indeed, many HP heroines seem to have pasts similar to heroines of novels from my grandmother’s day. Nowadays, this line doesn’t have too many rape/forced seduction scenarios though they do still crop up occasionally(The Innocent’s Surrender, I’m looking at you…) However, the men still play the dominant role in most of these relationships and the women will almost always be giving up whatever career they had(why be a secretary when you can marry the billionaire?) in order to follow him. It’s a very retro setup.

On a less steamy level, Betty Neels novels are very different than Presents in many ways but I have this same love-hate relationship with them. Her settings charm me and even though her heroines seem oh so downtrodden, few of them are TSTL. In fact, most of her heroines have good sense and a certain appeal about them. They are some of the most sensible nurses you will ever meet. The superpowerful Dutch doctors who dominate her lineup of heroes are way over the top, but I’ve still lapped up several tales of cold, wealthy Dutch docs who decided marrying the good, efficient nurse beat being wed to the job.

Though this reader’s feelings are much stronger than mine, this blog piece well sums up why I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable in Betty Neel’s world. Sometimes I just can’t take the meek heroines or the uncaring, oblivious hero who is far too dedicated to his medical work to notice the heroine until the very last minute. And yet…

I always go back. This time around, it was a Betty Neels blog that pulled me back because even as it cracks me up, these ladies have made me resdiscover why I loved these books so much. Maybe it’s fantastic food descriptions (clotted cream, cakes, mmm….), the exceedingly unusual(to American ears) Dutch doctor names or the gentle, old-fashioned storytelling, but something just keeps pulling me back in. I may laugh at how completely out of touch with modern reality the stories are. As I’ve seen mentioned on several blogs, Betty Neels was writing into the 21st century, but you’d never know it by the 1940s lifestyles of her characters. However, a visit to retro-land is just part of the charm that I know I’m in for when I pick up one of these books (and the food – I’m always paying attention to the food).

One reason I love Betty Neels is that she seems to have genuine affection for her main characters. The evil tramps who try to ensnare the hero may wind up married to vulgar tycoons from the Americas (dens of iniquity in these books and apparently a vile fate), but the hero and heroine are generally spoken of kindly. The heroine may be plain, but she’ll also be efficient and sensible and – the ultimate fantasy here – these qualities will be elevated and adored rather than taken for granted. And the hero may be cold sometimes, but we will be assured that his heart is in the right place and he’ll always manage to protect and rescue the heroine. There’s a lot of melodrama out there and I’d never want to live like a Neels heroine, but as with Presents, Neels’ world has very definite, recognizable rules and there’s something very comfortable and familiar about stepping into that framework. And sometimes comfortable and familiar is exactly what I’m looking for.

So, who else out here has a love-hate relationship with their books? Which books?

-Lynn Spencer