Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nurse at the Castle

By Joanne Holden (pseud. Jane Corby), ©1965

It was surprising how much courage it took to walk into the bedroom of someone who has tried to choke you, Nancy thought. But she need not have worried. Lavinia Barclay was her usual friendly self and greeted Nancy cheerily. “Good morning. And to what do I owe the pleasure of this early morning visit from the doctor?” Nancy answered evasively. “I think he was invited to sleep over. That’s all.” She changed the subject. “Did you sleep well?” “Beautifully,” her patient answered. Evidentally [sic] Lavinia Barclay had no notion of what had happened the night before. And, to Nancy, this was the most frightening thing of all…

GRADE: C+

BEST QUOTE:
“She practically pushed him away when his closeness interfered with her breathing.”

REVIEW:
I had some hope for this book, with cover lines that seemed to promise both Gothic and nurse novel in one. And the book does make an effort to give us a mystery of sorts, though you would have to be a complete moron—or the heroine of a VNRN—not to see exactly what is going on as early as page 22. So while this book isn’t out-and-out bad, it was hard not to feel disappointed by it.

The “castle” in question is a grandiose mansion in Tarrytown, New York, home of widowed millionaire Lavinia Barclay, who in her early sixties is too old and weak to leave her room or even get out of bed for long. Mrs. Barclay is being managed by her second cousin, John Ferguson, and Dr. Orville Lacey, who have brought in Nurse Nancy Bronson to do the actual work of caring for Mrs. Barclay. Although the doctor has said that Mrs. Barclay is “suffering from hallucinations … rapidly deteriorating, and … it was only a question of time before she would require institutional care,” Nancy quickly comes to the conclusion that all Mrs. Barclay really suffers from is too many tranquilizers and not enough nutritious food or fresh air. And it’s not just because, as Kent Milliard, Mrs. Barclay’s young and handsome lawyer, tells Nancy, “You distrust Dr. Lacey because he didn’t fall for you.”

No, she doesn’t trust the doctor because he is condescending, telling Nancy that he can’t possibly explain what is wrong with Mrs. Barclay because she just wouldn’t understand—“a nurse not being a doctor, of course.” Not only that, but he calls her “dear,” and “Nancy hated to be called ‘dear.’ ” When he catches Nancy taking Mrs. Barclay for a walk in the garden, he calls her “bungling” and refuses to explain why he thinks Nancy’s efforts to give Mrs. Barclay some minimal exercise are unacceptable. So when Nancy realizes that Mrs. Barclay is palming her medications and faking the tantrums and lethargy she displays only in front of the doctor, she keeps her mouth shut and decides to pursue her course of feeding and exercising Mrs. Barclay in secret.

In her leisure hours, Nancy is fending off advances from Cousin John and Greg Mansfield, an antiques expert hanging around the house to create an inventory of the estate’s assets. She also flirts with Kent, walks barefoot on the lawn in the rain with him, the floozy, and aks him to investigate the doctor. She also manages to completely miss the blatant hints about what’s really going on. She overhears a conversation in which John says, “As soon as Lavinia is committed and I get power of attorney, I’ll have control of the money, and Dr. Lacey will get paid off and leave town.” Instead of putting her on high alert, these words serve only to confuse Nancy, and she “stopped listening.” Not long after that, Kent tells her Dr. Lacey is an expert, having been practicing for more than 40 years. She responds by pointing out, “He would have had to be a child prodigy! Dr. Lacey is only 40 years old—or less—today.” Yet still she doesn’t seem to quite connect the dots. After Mrs. Barclay gets an injection from Dr. Lacey and shortly afterward loses her mind, attempting to strangle her, Nancy can only believe that she was wrong and Dr. Lacey correct in his diagnosis of Mrs. Barclay’s mental incapacity. It’s not only in her work that Nancy is dense; when Kent tells her, “I’ve already decided on the girl I want,” she assumes he’s talking about someone else and changes the subject. I don’t mind a small amount of suspension of disbelief, but this is taking things way too far.

I did find myself racing through the last few pages, when Nancy is packing up Mrs. Barclay for her permanent installation in the loony bin, to find out if help would arrive in time (it did!). And the last sentence—“I’ll convince you that a wife may like to work,”—scored points with me. On the whole, the book is a reasonably enjoyable read, without an overdose of saccharine. But it wasn’t really a mystery, it wasn’t really Gothic, it wasn’t really suspenseful. It wasn’t really great.

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