Eliza Proudfoot is one of best heroines in Neeldom, and she far outshines the hero in Heaven is Gentle.
Heaven is Gentle begins with the hero, Christian van Duyl conferring with his partner over the hiring of a nurse to assist them with their month-long study of asthmatic patients. Both men are professors and doctors, Professor Wyllie being a much older man, so how do they go about choosing? By how appealing her name is, of course! They want an older, motherly nurse who is built sturdily and won't cause a ruckus amongst the patients, who need a calm environment free from stress. From the list of names provided by a colleague, "Eliza Proudfoot" sounds like just the ticket, so they hire her via her hospital, sight unseen. And, when she arrives, she is a sight! She is petite, pretty, and feisty. She is also quite qualified, as she points out to them in no uncertain terms. Christian is knocked for a loop, and the poor guy doesn't recover until the last half of the book.
Eliza is the star of this book, and unfortunately our hero is on the edge of the spotlight. While Eliza has a distinct character and voice, and only gets better as the story goes on, Christian does not fare quite as well, at least in the first half of the story. His behavior is inconsistent; he smiles kindly, then snarls at her or he sits chatting amiably by the fire, then ignores her for a day or two. This might be due to his conflicting emotions concerning Miss Proudfoot (and his fiance, Estelle) but he doesn't wear that role well. And, most of what he does is a reaction to something Eliza does, so he comes across as neither an alpha hero or a beta hero. I thought he was rather dull...until the story picked up.
The first half of the book concerns the research project. I found it a flimsy device and would have been happy had that whole episode been reduced to half the pages or even a couple of chapters. Christian owns an abandoned estate in the wilds of Scotland, where he drives a Range Rover, and they choose it as the site for the experiment. It is filthy, and there's no cleaning woman, and the grounds are overgrown. Nice. Eliza is relegated to a tiny cottage, but at least it is spotless. The 10 male patients do not fare as well: they are stashed away in an old Nissen hut, which is half-cylinder hut made of corrugated steel and is leftover from 'the war.' One can only imagine the noise inside when the Scottish rains fall- and it pours buckets. The 10 men live in this refurbished hut 24/7, but for a brisk daily walk, for an entire month. They have their TPR taken, play checkers, and eat food carried over from the big house. I was wondering why the lot wasn't at each other's throats by the end of the first week.
Anyway, Eliza livens the place up, and falls in love with Christian. Mildly interesting stuff happens, Eliza runs rings around Christian, old Professor Wyllie looks on in amusement, cozy moments alternate with bland looks and brusque words, and they finally pack it all up and drive out of the wilderness. Finally, the story starts to get good.
Professor Wyllie gets sick and he calls for Miss Proudfoot, which puts her back in contact with Christian. Once Christian gets his head straight, and is back in his Bentley, he becomes a much more interesting figure and starts being more in charge. (He also has a Porsche 911) Eventually the whole crew, plus Christian's mama and Estelle, end up together at his enormous estate. What a jolly holiday!
Eliza stays strong the entire story and is the equal of Christian- a very nice change from most of Neels' heroines. The reader can readily identify with her since she reacts in a "real" way that most of us have experienced at one time or another. There's also good secondary characters, including Professor Wyllie, who is a crotchety old guy with a good heart and a matchmaker's soul, and Estelle, who has as much life in her as a dried up stick. Christian rises to the moment in the last part of the book, and becomes likable.
While this is not on my list of Most Favorite Neels, mainly because of the lackluster hero, it is an enjoyable book with a very nice, satisfying ending.