By Jane Converse
(pseud. of Adele Kay Maritano), ©1967
Cover illustration by Allan Kass
“Give it up,” Glen Seabrook had said. “They’re using you, Rita. They’ll never change.” But she couldn’t abandon her family. And she lost Glenn. It all seemed so long ago. Before she became wife to an alcoholic, mother to a son—and widow. At twenty-four, life held no more surprises for Rita Ambler. Then came the accident that changed everything. That thrust Rita Ambler into the arms of Dr. Lester Wyman and out of reach of his new protégé, Dr. Glen Seabrook…the only man she had ever loved.
“You’ve been out of it so long, you think dates are sweet gooey things that grow on palm trees.”
“She wanted to scream out her anger at the pink and white and lavender woman who sat reading about submerged continents while her grandchild displayed alarming symptoms.”
“If one’s vibrations are in tune with the infinitude, there are no insurmountable obstacles.”
The problem with an author like Jane Converse, who has written many, many VNRNs – this is the tenth book of her I have reviewed – is that you just can’t always be at the top of your game, but you’re always held to your highest mark. Jane’s highest, which would be (and faithful readers know what I’m going to say) Surf Safari Nurse, is a good mile or two above Cinderella Nurse. This book is not her worst, but I can’t help feel especially disappointed, since I know what she is capable of.
At book’s open, we have something very unusual in our heroine – a widow! With a three-year-old son, Timmy! Rita had fallen in love with Glenn Seabrook, a medical student, who takes the typical attitude of male medical students in love: “Do you think I’m going to let you support me?” he asks her. “It might be a good arrangement for some lush who’s looking for a meal ticket. Not me.” “What difference did money make when two people were genuinely in love?” she asks him, as all the other nurses ask their medical student boyfriends, but he, like all the others, will have none of it. Dumb guys.
So when he leaves their Trenton, New Jersey, hometown for a neurosurgery residency in New York, she accepts the first loser who comes along, a lush looking for a meal ticket named Keith Ambler. Rita nags and scolds, Keith keeps drinking, and soon he abandons the family for warmer climes. Eventually Rita gets a letter from one of Keith’s drinking buddies that Keith has died of cirrhosis in Mexico.
But it’s not just Timmy that Rita has to worry about. There’s her good-for-nothing kid sister, Nadine, who is ostensibly studying to be a nurse but seems more interested in shopping for new dresses on Rita’s paycheck than going to class. Rita’s mother, a widow herself, has gone in heavy for the psychic scene, and spends what little is left of Rita’s money on tarot card readers and Ouija boards. Neither of these two ladies has acquired any experience with holding a mop, much less a job, so it falls to Rita to clean and cook when she gets home from work. It is her role as the uncomplaining nanny for all these people that earns her the nickname Cinderella, given to her by Glenn before they split up, and which adds additional heat to Glenn’s insistence that he won’t be a sponge, too.
And now the book starts. Glenn is back in town, a surgical resident working with the esteemed brain surgeon Dr. Lester Wyman. But after seeing that Rita is no less a dishrag than she ever was, he turns to feistier nurses to keep him company. Then little Timmy, while under the care of his grandmother, sneaks out of the house and takes quite a tumble, knocking himself unconscious and fracturing his skull. Dr. Wyman operates, foots the bill, and starts seeing Rita and talking marriage. She agrees – but then she finds out that he believes it to be “axiomatic that a surgeon couldn’t keep operating without a steady supply of alcohol to sustain his nerves.” And rumors are flying around the hospital that it wasn’t Dr. Wyman who operated on Timmy at all, but sober Glenn, when Dr. Wyman, shaking with the DTs, drops a scalpel, and then stoops to pick it up … though I’m not sure that readers unfamiliar with the OR will understand the horror and italics this statement is expressed in. The sterile field of the operation is absolutely inviolate, and deliberately touching something that isn’t sterile during a surgery, or apparently intending to use a dirty scalpel, is, shall we say, frowned upon.
During all this crises, the battle axe head nurse, herself a doomed spinster desperately in love with Dr. Wyman, wreaks her vengeance on Rita. But for the first time in her life, Rita stands up for herself. She tells off the head nurse, which is overheard by Glenn, who happens to be standing outside the head nurse’s office when all this goes down. She calls home to check on Timmy and finds her sister is being uncharacteristically sweet, saying that she’s really tired from all the studying she’s been doing all day and that Rita and Timmy should go out to dinner without her and just let her sleep. Rita, the dope, throws this example of Nadine’s generosity in Glenn’s face, and poor Glenn has to tell Rita that Nadine was kicked out of nursing school months ago.
Then Rita gets another call from Nadine’s boyfriend David, a wealthy med school student, telling her to hurry home. She and Glenn rush back to Rita’s house to find that Nadine has somehow gotten her hands on a drug that will induce abortion and is nearly dead from it, while David implores them not to take Nadine to the hospital because if he is implicated in the sorry mess, he’ll be kicked out of medical school. Though it’s quite clear that there’s no way Nadine could have gotten her hands on the medicine of her own accord, after Nadine recovers from her near-death experience, she refuses to name David and says that it was all her idea.
Rita finally sees herself as “the world’s champion patsy,” who has “always latched onto weaklings and chisellers on the pretext that they need me.” Rita thinks about insisting that her mother to find a way to support herself. “It was that simple. And that impossible.” But she thinks she can tell Nadine to get her ass off the couch. Arriving home, however, she finds that she has been spared the opportunity of de-lousing herself. Nadine has extorted money from David’s family in return for her silence and split for Hollywood, and Rita’s mother, having wheedled a cut for herself, is just finishing her own packing before she leaves to become a resident disciple at the Institute for Ultimate Wisdom in California. Free at last, Rita calls Glenn, who rushes right over …
The book isn’t badly written, and Rita’s mother is certainly enjoyable as she chews the furniture with lines like, “Honey, if I hadn’t been properly tuned when your poor daddy passed over into the next world, I shudder to think what would have happened to us.” But she’s a one-note wonder, and while we don’t see much of her, we’d probably tire quickly if we did. Jane earns points for plotting, but the writing is ordinary, and there’s not as much camp as I know she is capable of. It’s more than a little disappointing that we don’t get to see Rita stand up for herself in the end. We’ve seen her take a few small steps toward independence, but nothing significant, and I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when Mom and Nadine come crawling home from California.