Saturday, July 20, 2013

Leap in the Dark

By Rona Randall, ©1956
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Jeanne Cleary’s eventual destination was the nursing school in London, but on her own for the first time she felt an urgency to sort out the mysterious circumstances of her birth. Born to an aristocratic French woman who had married against her family’s wishes, Jeanne had been left an orphan when her parents died during the war. Now, having just discovered the existence of her French grandparents, Jeanne was determined to have at least one look at her mother’s ancestral home. But Fate was not to be satisfied with just a far-away glimpse. Before she could turn away from the imposing Château de Clémenteaux, Jeanne would become entangled in a series of lies which would bind her to another’s identity … an identity which would keep her from the man she loved, and prevent her from unmasking the imposter who said she was the real Jeanne Cleary.


“As for his sister, one could forgive her for being a novelist—that was deplorable and unfeminine, of course, but could be overlooked.”

“We do not know just what we are capable of until we actually do it.”

“Women, like flowers, were meant to be decorative and pleasing. But they were of greater service than flowers. He could enjoy them and make use of them at the same time.”

“Oh, Anne, not you—not you, of all people wearing trousers!”

For starters, let’s begin by clarifying that this is not a nurse novel. Jeanne Cleary, fresh out of the orphanage—and not just any orphanage, mind you, but a convent orphanage—is on a train in France en route to a nursing school in London when the train pulls into the abandoned station in Vraipoupon. Completely on impulse, Jeanne grabs her small, cheap suitcase containing the handful of meager possessions that are all she has in the world and hops off. She starts walking, and comes to a grand estate. Guess what? It happens to belong to her grandmother, the Comtesse Clémenteaux, whom she has never seen because her mother, after eloping with the English soldier John Cleary, was disinherited by her parents! Even more coincidentally, the cook Emilée, rushes up the path, grabs her, and pulls her in, insisting that she is the nurse Hélène Dubois, who has arrived to care for the blind Comtesse.

Once she claps eyes on the sweet old lady who is her only living relative, Jeanne cannot bring herself to tell the truth and so poses as the nurse—fortunately for her, she’s really more of a companion than a nurse, so not even Dr. Paul Antoine suspects the truth. Naturally Jeanne takes to life at the estate like a duck to water, and she and the Comtesse become as one in spirit. But suddenly, in through the grand entrance marches Anne Cleary, accompanied by the Comtesse’s attorney Jacques Bergerot, who claims Anne is the real granddaughter and heir to the estate! What to do, what to do?

Well, first off, Jeanne falls like a ton of bricks for the suave and shady Jacques Bergerot, the innocent little dope. She has to fall for someone, I guess, and the doctor just finds her irritating from the word go—though we all know what that means. When Jacques kisses her and looks into her eyes—“his commanding and hers submissive,” if you can bear to know—she believes that he is going to marry her. In truth, however, Jacques is cavorting with Anne, who turns out to be the real Hélène Dubois, and a seedy tramp. We know this because she finds life in the country boring, she doesn’t like the Comtesse, and she’s rude to the servants. So Anne is as shocked to encounter Jeanne as Jeanne is to encounter Anne. But of the two, Anne is a lot more resourceful, and she soon searches Jeanne’s room and discovers the documents and photos that prove Jeanne’s real identity and secrets them in her own room—save the passport, which she tosses in the kitchen stove one night when Armand the gardener is too sick to sleep there, as he usually does.

So now Jeanne seems to be completely out of luck; all she will have is Jacques and his love to keep her warm. But as fate would have it, on the night of the big ball when Anne is to be announced as the Clémenteaux heir, Jacques and Anne announce their engagement!!! Jeanne is devastated, of course, but fortunately the good doctor is there to help buck her up, and in witnessing her despair, he realizes, “Damn the child—I am in love with her!” (He is right to describe her as a child; she is 17, and he is in his 30s.) But all is quickly set to rights: The Comtesse declares that she hopes Anne will wear the Clémenteaux family ring, which Anne has never heard of. The Comtesse becomes quite upset over this, and to comfort her, Jeanne slips her hand into the Comtesse’s—who quickly realizes that Jeanne is wearing the ring! Now all we need is for Emilée the cook to show up bearing the passport, which wasn’t actually burned up, and for Paul to declare, “I think I should warn you, Comtesse, that I have decided to marry this troublesome girl at the first opportunity, irrespective of who, or what, she is.” Jeanne doesn’t get to dance at the ball, because she almost fell through the rickety drawbridge fleeing the house when things looked black for her, but that’s a small price to pay.

This book is utterly predictable, but it’s nonetheless entertaining. The story is told from many characters’ points of view, which makes it a bit more interesting, since Jeanne is far and away the most vapid of all the characters. (When Paul’s sister wishes, “If only Paul would marry some nice girl who had no literary or medical ambitions, who wanted nothing in life but marriage and motherhood!” we know beyond doubt, much to our dismay, that Jeanne fits this bill precisely.) So even if the heroine is a bore and the storyline is ridiculously obvious, this book is still worth reading. Now if only it were an actual nurse romance novel.

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