Cover illustration by Harry Bennett
“You see, Greg,” she said soberly, “nobody really knows when my birthday is.” He turned around and looked into her face. “What is this, a gag? Surely your mother knows. She was there after all.” She sat up straight. “Nobody knows when I was born. I’m not really the daughter of Stewart and Alicia Winslow; they adopted me when I was a little girl. It’s rather like a Victorian novel. But it’s fact, no fiction.” “But who … but they must know who …” “No, I was found, it seems, asleep and almost frozen to death in some woods in France, near the Swiss border. The Winslows took me from a home for such war orphans in France. All they know is that I was about four when I came up to the French peasants who discovered me and said, Je suis Thérèse …”
“She was a nurse but she was also a girl. And being a girl she had, more or less naturally, asked for and received all pertinent information about the male members of the staff of Goodswill Hospital.”
“We don’t look very tempting in those uniforms, do we?”
With a name like Theresa Winslow, you can probably already guess that our heroine comes from the proper side of Central Park—Park Avenue, in fact. She became a nurse “not out of need for earning a living,” but I’m sorry to tell you we never really learn what inspires Tessa to be the superb nurse that she is. She’s dating Greg Halsey “—that was the Halseys—” who is a Southampton neighbor of hers, but she finds him frivolous. Rather, she has the hots for Dr. Thomas Blair, who, for some strange reason, treats her with “a marked reserve” though he jokes around with the other nurses. Hmmmm.
One of her patients, as we enter the book, is Franz Grauer, a withdrawn, elderly Hungarian man with no visitors, chronic stomach pain, and a number tattooed on his arm. She is strangely intrigued by him, and visits him in her off-duty hours. He mentions that his daughter Susanna (and I must mention my delight at finding a character with my name; it doesn’t happen often!) died at the age of five in Europe during the war. She then tells him her own story: She was found in France, wandering in the woods alone, when she was about four. All she could tell of her identity was, “Je suis Thérèse,” though she also spoke a smattering of both German and Spanish. She was adopted by the Winslows after the war but has always wondered about her origins.
(She’s told Greg this story, and his reaction, after appraising her “fair and milky skin,” her hazel eyes and reddish gold hair, is that she “had just the coloring and texture once would expect in a child of pure English-Scotch-Irish background. […] It was simply not possible that she could have come from some middle-European background where, as everyone knew, all kinds of influences tend to mar the pure beauty which—Greg Halsey thought sincerely, could only be found in Anglo-Saxons. There was not the slightest hint of anything else.” This is a turning point in their relationship; she tells him he is ridiculous and stops seeing him.)
She is fascinated by Mr. Grauer: “From the very first minute that she had seen Mr. Grauer, she had the strange sensation of having seen him before. The odd feeling that he was no stranger to her but someone she had known, someone who had been very close to her. Someone she mustn’t lose again.” But her interest develops into an obsession. She loses her head and asks Tom Blair, on their first date, to keep Mr. Grauer in the hospital even though all tests on him have come back negative; Tom feels that the problem is either psychosomatic or that Mr. Grauer is a malingerer. He responds by chewing her out, reminding her of the shortage of beds for truly sick patients, and adds, “I see your kind every day, Junior Leaguers coyly doing volunteer hospital work and feeling just marvelous about it. Well, I don’t happen to think that a hospital should be a playground for spoiled and satiated society girls.” Ouch!
Undeterred, however, her lapse in moral judgment continues, and she is caught in Mr. Larsen’s office attempting to obtain Mr. Grauer’s wallet—all patients’ valuables are kept in a locked cabinet there—where he keeps a photograph of his daughter, which he has refused to allow her to see. She’s so far gone that she is “jolted” that Tom has not asked her out again after their initial date, apparently not recalling how disastrous it was or his disgust with her deteriorating personal and work ethic(s).
After Mr. Grauer has left the hospital without saying goodbye, she tracks him down at a shabby West Side address. She presses him to reveal his own history, and he tells her that he and his wife had fled Hungary with their daughter for occupied France—spoken only French to Susanna to help conceal their suspicious origins, and called her Thérèse as an alias—and that as they attempted to cross into Switzerland they were found by Nazis, though Susanna/Thérèse was able to hide and thus avoided capture. Our heroine is overjoyed, sweeping up her new father and depositing him at a better (East 63rd Street) apartment and learning to cook Hungarian entrees for him. They invite Tom to dinner and he is again warming to Tessa, though he is concerned about a future with her. “She had everything—position, family, money. How could you take care of a girl like that? What could you give her, in the early, lean years of doctoring?”
Now comes the philosophical debate over who owns Tessa. The characters’ attitudes suggest that she is a piece of property in a battle between the Winslows and her birth parents. Mr. Grauer asks her what she would do if she were to find her birth parents, and she says, “I would go to them. Go where I belonged.” He answers, “And give up all you have?” as if, somehow, her two sets of parents are an either-or choice. Mr. Winslow fears “that there might be anyone who had a right to Tessa—a stronger right than he and his wife.” The Winslows “have acquired a right” to Tessa by adopting her, but “a [birth] father’s right is stronger.”
If her parents have a right to own Tessa, her future husband, once found, apparently not only supersedes but also obliterates all prior comers. “I just found her and now soon someone will come and take her away again,” says Mr. Grauer, referring to this husband. Tessa’s mother, concerned that birth parents could take her place, is hoping for a marriage between Greg and Tessa, seeing this “as a final break between Tessa and her past.” Tom tells Mr. Grauer that “someone would claim Tessa one of these days. In that case she would be with neither you nor the Winslows.”
To protect his so-called rights, Mr. Grauer is thinking about going back to Hungary and taking Tessa with him. When Tom disagrees with this plan, Mr. Grauer asks, “Do you not think I have a right to ask my daughter to come with me? Do you not think I have a right to some happiness after all I went through?” Curiously, Tessa’s rights, and her opinion on the matter, are not considered for one minute. His plan to move overseas with Tessa is his decision; Tessa has no say in the matter, and it is simply assumed that she must go with him.
Suspicious that Mr. Grauer is not really Tessa’s birth father, Tom—who is interested in making his own bid for Tessa—asks a friend to look into Mr. Grauer’s past, saying that there is a “legacy” at stake, “and I want to make sure he’s entitled to it.” When the results from this investigation are in, he goes to see Mr. Grauer, who circumvents what he can see is coming by asking if Tom has come to ask for Tessa’s hand in marriage. Tom protests that “I haven’t said a single romantic thing to Tessa.” Again, what does Tessa’s opinion matter? “When I was young, the girl was the last to know,” Mr. Grauer answers. “The most important thing was to ask the father.” So Tom immediately asks for Tessa. Mr. Grauer, interestingly, refuses—then says that he’s not Tessa’s father, and he knows that Tom is aware of this, but how did Tom find out? “She is an altogether different racial type,” he answers—bringing us back to poor jilted Greg’s response.
But there are other bits of evidence, and Mr. Grauer admits all. Tom realizes that if he tells Tessa the truth about Mr. Grauer, she will most likely reject him—so he will lose Tessa either way. But then Mr. Grauer offers his olive branch: If Tessa decides to marry Tom, Mr. Grauer does not have to be dethroned as the birth father. “One loses a daughter, but one gains a son. Shall we drink to that, Dr. Blair?” It’s a done deal, and Tessa is bought and sold over glasses of Hungarian wine.
But then the Winslows return from Europe, and Dad has a final trick up his sleeve. While abroad, he’d done some research of his own and found an elderly curate in France who remembered the day Tessa and her birth parents came to town. The parents were shot trying to escape, he’d discovered, but the little girl, who had told the curate, “Je m’appelle Thérèse,” had not been found. But all interested parties win in the end: The last chapter has Tessa going to visit the graveyard in Mornex, southeast of Geneva, with her new husband (guess who that is?). Despite getting married, she hasn’t written off Mr. Grauer, though he’s found a Hungarian lady friend and “maybe her job was about done” with him.
The book has a very pretty ending, and it certainly raises a lot of interesting topics: identity, what it means to be a parent, relationships and the rights that come with them. The book doesn’t actually resolve the issues about who owns Tessa, unless we award her to her husband, so all that philosophical wrangling for her seems like a waste of time. The writing in the book is not particularly special, but the author has built a unique storyline, which I really appreciate after 178 VNRNs that seem to share the same three or five plots, and if you like to ponder the issues, this book is worth reading.