Saturday, May 7, 2011

Big City Nurse

By Jane Highmore (pseud. Barbara Schiller), ©1961
Cover illustration by Jerry Allison

For a few seconds they stood silently, then Alex tilted Marcia’s head back and kissed her with a demanding force unlike anything she had ever experienced. His urgent demands aroused in her heart a fire that could be quenched only by meeting his ardor with her own. Rapturously Marcia gave herself up to his embrace. He laughed huskily. “And to think I wanted a malleable little wife!” And still there was a nagging doubt deep within her. Was this what she wanted—to marry a Fifth Avenue doctor, to give up her own career? Yet Alex was everything she had ever dreamed of—handsome, wealthy, intelligent. What was it that sometimes bothered her so deeply, even when she was in his arms?


“It’s Russ, and I’m afraid he’s high again. He’s one of our oldest friends, but very difficult. He was the most brilliant boy at Andover and now, well, you’ll see for yourself.”

“The Village is filled with the Mafia, dope addicts, panhandlers, drunks and other objectionable characters.”

“I liked Kerouac’s first book, and I’m really looking forward to seeing some beatniks. We certainly don’t have them in Virginia.”

“Go fix up and then join me inside. We don’t want anyone to know we’ve been necking like school kids.”

“All Bostonians seemed to be defensive about their city to New Yorkers.”

“What this country needs is a good five-dollar psychiatrist.”

“Is that what you defied me and the whole family tradition for—to carry around bedpans and worse?”

Marcia Meade is a 21-year-old scrub nurse at Metroland Hospital in Manhattan. She managed to reel in the most eligible bachelor at the hospital, Dr. Alex Barrett, a 44-year-old Princeton alum, a year ago by merely exposing her face after surgery: “As Marcia lowered her surgical mask, Alex looked at her in delighted surprise and sworn that he was going to institute proceedings to do away with gauze cover-up on the grounds of improving the surgeons’ morale.” Their dates seem to be mostly hanging out with his friends, an elite bunch—one couple lives in a chi-chi house on West 10th Street filled with art by Pollack, de Kooning, Ben Shahn, and Francis Bacon (though for hors d’oeuvres they serve a more plebian stuffed celery).

Alex proposes, and Marcia is swept off her feet. Then Alex’s ideas soon begin to seem a bit claustrophobic: “I believe a woman should be treated gently, given a home that will shelter her as a jewel box does a gem, pampered within reason,” he says on a date with another couple he knows. A few pages later, Marcia suggests the foursome head for a beatnik club in the Village. Alex is the only one in the group who doesn’t find the poetry groovy: “I fail to see anything amusing in their wasting their minds on this nonsense, in spending what is undoubtedly their parents’ money on getups like that.” When he drops her at home afterward, she pleads a headache and doesn’t invite him in.

Alex tells her she is not going to continue working as a nurse after they are married, and though she agrees, she still wants to do something. She tells him she will teach nursing instead, and he reacts with condescension: “Of course you can play schoolmarm if you want,” he says. Then at one of Alex’s parties, the chief of staff asks her to go to Boston for a month to take a course in cardiac nursing, which she could then teach, and she agrees on the spot. Alex is peeved that she has not consulted him about it, and tells her she will change her mind “because I have asked you to.” She doesn’t. When she’s away, he sends her letters “all about an ulcer operation he had performed on Senator Crawford V. Kraft—all three pages of the finest-quality bond stationery. The Senator had been most pleased with him. Marcia was not.”

When she gets home, she finds that another doctor friend of hers, Dave Greeley, is entertaining “radical” notions about the practice of medicine, in which doctors work on salary at medical centers funded by nonmedical groups such as unions or even—gasp!—the government, enabling them to do more for patients of lower means. Alex is horrified by his ideas, and Marcia is in turn horrified by Alex’s “intolerance and prejudice.” This clues Marcia in to the fact that “Alex loved his career because it was profitable, loved being a surgeon because of all medical men they were the most admired, the best paid.” She tells him she’s decided not to teach, and Alex is overjoyed. “Your giving up the idea of a nursing career is all you needed to make you perfect,” he says—and then Marcia finishes her sentence, saying she’s decided to pursue cardiac surgery nursing. “I know what is best for us,” he answers.

At 188 pages, this book is a bit longer than most VNRNs. It’s not hard to figure out that Alex and Marcia are doomed as a couple—indeed, this is evident after the Village incident, which is only a third of the way through the book. But there are still 120 more pages of damning anecdotes, and eventually you just want to smack Marcia upside the head and tell her to snap out of it. The lifestyle of upper-crust New York hobnobbing is enjoyable to visit, the writing is pretty good if only occasionally inspired, and the book offers plenty of sophisticated references, like Pygmalion and Galatea, and Mantolocking, where Alex spent his summers as a youth. (And I have to wonder if the pseudonym was taken from the Henry James story “The Next Time,” about a woman novelist of the same name.) But it would be a better book if there were less of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment