Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
Dr. Claudia Martin stood by as she watched her fiancé, Dr. Dan Starr, treat his new patient, Kathleen Emory, who suffered from a partial paralysis that could only be cured by physical therapy. Spoiled and petted by her husband, Kathleen was used to getting what she wanted. And Claudia was sure that right now Kathleen wanted Dan. Claudia was used to Dan's becoming involved with his patients' problems. But this time it was different. This time the patient was a very beautiful girl. How long could Claudia's love for Dan last if she was forced to share his emotional commitment with another woman? After all, being a doctor didn't mean that she wasn't a woman. She had a woman’s need for her man's attention. How could she make Dan see that she, too, needed him?
“That’s the secret of French cooking. Time. You’re so hungry by the time you get it, you’re sure it’s super-colossal.”
“Why don’t you marry the girl and get her out of your life?”
“She felt she had to compensate for being a woman in what was generally considered a man’s profession, and so she was less quick to show compassion, an expression which she subconsciously felt would give the impression that she was more of a woman than a doctor.”
I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to decide if this actually accounts as a nurse novel (and yes, books about women doctors do count as “nurse novels”). The character we spend the most time with is Dr. Dan Starr, and it’s his name that populates the cover. But Dr. Claudia Martin is also a leading character, we do get into her head a fair amount, and she ends up with her man (again) at the end; they were engaged from the opening page. The story is largely about him, his infatuation with another woman and how he extricates himself from it, but VNRNs can be about a man’s wandering attention and how he comes to his senses. In the end, though, I think the fact that he occupies more of the book than she does, that we don’t follow Claudia’s daily life, and that we don’t get to know her as well as we do him, means that this book is not actually a VNRN.
So the question of whether I should review it on this blog also comes up. The answer to that is easier; I read the book, so what the heck, I’ll do a review. Purists should skip to the next post.
Dan Starr is a chief resident at Rothwell Clinic in Manhattan. His fiancée is Dr. Claudia Martin, a psychiatrist. They get together for dinner and witty repartee: “Wouldn’t you like to put your feet up and relax?” she asks him when he arrives at her place. “I’m sorry I don’t have a dog to bring you your pipe and slippers.” But something must intrude on their happy affair or there wouldn’t be a book, so enter Kathleen Emory, a 20-year-old waif married to 50-year-old Eugene Emory. Theirs is an epic love story: He hired her to work at his factory as a secretary, but she was completely incompetent, so he shuffled her around the office until the only position left for her to take was the one as his wife. He takes care of her, because she’s ridiculously insecure and inadequate—this is due to an overbearing mother—and they don’t have a physical relationship, because she’s so childlike that neither one of them think she can handle it.
She’s landed in the clinic after a car accident ruined her arms, which she cannot raise or even twitch. Her physical therapist, Dr. Mary Young, is a burly sort—“From the rear, from Dan’s view, she had much the look of a Yale lineman”—who pushes her patients hard. Mr. Emory feels she is pushing Kathleen overmuch, and complains to the head of the hospital, who asks Dan to look into it. But—and this point is one of some contention between the Drs. Starr and Martin—Dan has a tendency to get overly involved with his patients. Sure enough, once Dan claps eyes on the pretty, helpless, tearful young thing in room 713, he feels the only way he can get to the bottom of the question of whether Dr. Young is working Kathleen too hard is if he himself personally gives her physical therapy treatments every night, in addition to the treatments she gets from Dr. Young, even though he admits he has little knowledge of physical therapy. Needless to say, Claudia is not too excited about this, and after visiting Kathleen, she quickly arrives at the idea that Kathleen is in love with Dan.
And how does Dan feel? “Dan avoided asking himself if he were in love with her. He was not sure what the answer would be. He knew, however, what he must do. He had to continue treating her.” Because if you think you might be falling in love with a patient, married or not, and it’s pretty clear that the patient is falling for you, the best thing is to go right on spending too much time with them. Even the head of the hospital, when he hears what’s going on, tells Dan, “You’ve made something complicated out of something simple.” Yet night after night, there is the altruistic doctor, rubbing Kathleen’s pale, limp arms and feeding her chocolates that she can’t lift for herself. How sweet.
It turns out that Eugene does not want Kathleen to get better; if she is crippled, she will be helpless and dependent upon him for life, and that suits him just fine. When she figures this out, Kathleen tells Eugene that she wants to be strong and well, and he responds by nastily describing all the enormous responsibilities he is going to load on her when she gets home, and won’t that be great? Naturally, when he leaves, she has a hysterical fit. The next night, when Eugene returns to visit his wife, “he had the look of a man who has won a battle and who assumed that he had thus won the war.” Not so fast, buddy. Kathleen tells Eugene that she is leaving him for Dan, who loves her and wants to marry her. “He’s a handsome and wonderful man. A man—understand?” she snipes at him.
Eugene naturally goes straight to Dan, whose answer is to visit Kathleen. There, he pulls essentially the same stunt that Eugene did earlier—one that came across as low and despicable when Eugene did it—by telling her that he’s all excited to marry her, and give her “a normal life,” and Dr. Martin is going to be brought in “to get you ready, to prepare you to be my wife.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I was curious as to how Claudia was going to do this, exactly—show her porn movies? Review sex toys and techniques? But never mind, Kathleen caves to the pressure and screams at him to go away and leave her alone. Not content to stop there, Dan chews out Kathleen in the most heartless and unjustified way: “This business of being in love with me, do you know why you pulled that one? To give you a tighter hold on your husband. You intended all along to let him win you back. What a joke that was. You could never leave him. He was your closet where you could hide out. You couldn’t be a wife to any man because you’re not a woman—not the way you are.” Frankly, I did not see where this was coming from; nothing in Kathleen’s behavior or speeches makes me think that she did not believe herself to be in love with Dan. So my opinion of Dan plunged even further.
That’s not the end of the weirdness, however. Having beaten the emotional stuffing out of Kathleen, he marches off to see Eugene. There he pulls the same cruel game, telling Eugene that Kathleen is going to sue him for an annulment. “In that way, the fact that you and Kathleen have never really been man and wife and the reason for it will be brought out,” he says. What this “reason” could be is only hinted at. “How much do you know?” Eugene asks Dan, and then goes on to tell Dan that he married Kathleen because the men at his company were needling him about being single: “A man of fifty who’s never—who’s never … wanted a woman. They know about me.”
Could he … could he be … gay? In retrospect, all the classic signs are there. Eugene’s apartment is lavish and well-appointed, and he says, “Most people comment on my excellent taste,” when he shows Dan in. Flash back to our first meeting with Eugene: “Emory could have very well just stepped from the pages of Esquire magazine. He was wearing a meticulously trim, black worsted suit, a sparkling white silk shirt, and a silver silk tie, which more only the meagerest hint of a pattern, black shoes polished to conservative gloss, and a black homburg that sat on his head at a precisely correct tilt. His face, long and narrow, was interrupted by a guardsman moustache. Whoever kept it in trim was quite clearly a precisionist.” Why didn’t we see this before?
But let’s not beat ourselves up over it. Because there are greater villains at hand, and they grow increasingly more odious: Dan, not content to stop there, essentially blackmails Eugene into helping Kathleen get therapy so “she can someday be a woman.” He insists that Eugene “tell her about yourself—fully. And then, if you’re in love with her, by seeking the cause of your own abnormalcy, and trying to—” I assumed he was going to say have sexual relations, but that’s going too far for Eugene. “It can’t be that,” he cuts off Dan. “I’m what I am and I’m not ashamed of it.” Dan tries to encourage Eugene to get psychoanalysis, but Eugene refuses. “I’ve lived fifty years with this. If I changed, I wouldn’t be myself any more. I have my ways of living—my books, my apartment here, my privacy.” Instead he agrees to offer Kathleen a quiet divorce, which Dan graciously accepts on Kathleen’s behalf, although I’m not sure how the quivering aspic Kathleen is going to feel about all of Dan’s “help.”
I wonder if author William Johnston thought this was going to play as a happy ending, but to me it seemed a colossal nightmare, with no one winning. Kathleen might get therapy and someday go on to have sex—that is, after all, what all the “being a woman” euphemisms are about, and it seems that her virginity is of colossal importance to not only Dan but also her success as a human being according to the author—but Eugene is destroyed, and Dan is revealed as an evil, persecuting tyrant who will emotionally bully his own patient, and her husband as well, if it suits him. The no doubt unintended irony here is that the reason he got involved with Kathleen to begin with is that he was asked to look into whether she was being bullied by a doctor. It turns out that she is, but the perpetrator is Dr. Starr. And at the end of the book he’s hailed as a hero, and goes off to have coffee with the now-exonerated Dr. Young.
This is an odd book, but nonetheless a good one. It is well-written and humorous, and trots along at a good pace. The bizarre situation, the constant allusions to Kathleen’s sex life, and the hints at Eugene’s homosexuality make it one of the more unique and risqué books I’ve read, but since it’s not really a nurse novel, I guess that means it doesn’t count. Even so, it’s an interesting and worthwhile detour.