Cover illustration by Edrien King
Now, at last, the dream was a reality. They were doctors! Throughout their training, these three young women had been inseparable, but the knowledge of eventual separation had always been with them. For Anne Clive, Fleur’s leaving for her far-off home was a wrench, but the great hurt came with Susie’s surprise engagement to George Wyndham, brilliant surgeon and teacher. Not only did Anne fear that George Wyndham would do little to encourage his wife in her chosen career, but there was the inescapable fact that Anne herself was in love with the handsome Dr. Wyndham!
“You prepare yourself for a party as if—as if you were applying some complicated surgical dressing.”
“He’s not bad for a biochemist.”
“He’s not bad for a biochemist.”
“You must never be afraid of disagreements even if you feel that you might be wrong. It’s your only chance of finding out.”
“Who ever heard of anyone expecting a marriage to be exciting?”
“It must be horrible having a self-supporting wife.”
“Men clear out the moment they discover that a girl has a mind of her own. They seem to have some sort of vague idea that if a girl has intellect she can have no feelings.”
“There are rights which it is difficult to carry through and wrongs which seem easy, but every person must decide for himself which he chooses.”
Both the book’s title and back cover blurb (see above, in italics) lead the reader somewhat astray. While the outside cover leads you to think the story is going to be about three young women (the illustration might even make you think it’s about a male and female doctor), in truth it’s almost all about Anne Clive, who as the book opens has just graduated from medical school with her two roommates, Fleur Tallien and Susie Martin. Fleur, a scholarship student from South Africa, is discouraged by Susie’s brother David’s lack of attention to her and so promptly debarks for her home country, and we hear nothing of her again until the last few pages of the book. Susie shows up at the graduation party her wealthy parents are throwing for her and announces that she is marrying one of her instructors, Dr. George Wyndham, which comes as a complete shock to her two best friends. “He’s not a complete Philistine, you know,” Susie gushes to Anne after the party. “I told him that I liked French painting, so when I went to see him at St. Agnes’s he talked about impressionism and the romantic movement all through two hernia operations and one gastrectomy. And as he was cutting open the specimen after the operation, he suddenly turned to me and asked if I would marry him.” She couldn’t possibly have turned him down after such a romantic proposal.
Susie’s engagement, far from broadening her horizons, sharply curtails them. Her family is affronted by her abrupt decision to marry, and she’s dropped by her old medical school friends, who are busy planning their careers as she worries about flower arrangements and bridesmaid’s gowns. Even her good friend Anne is avoiding Susie, partly for throwing away her career and partly for living up to the stereotype: “People talked such a lot about women in medicine—saying that they kept men out of hospital jobs, and how their education was wasted because in the end they got married anyway and settled down to family life. Those who called themselves more ‘broadminded’ admitted that medicine was all right for a certain kind of woman—the masculine type, the hard and resolute type, or the studious type like Anne, but for such delightful young things as Susie Martin, it was a waste of their own and everybody else’s time.”
To give Susie partial credit, she does have a conversation with George, asking him if he will “let” her, or at least give her his “moral support” as she tries to find a job after their honeymoon. But, he tells her, “It would be impossible for you to organize your time according to my time-table.” Susie answers, “Has it never occurred to you that I don’t like ‘organizing’ my time according to anybody’s time-table?” So George trots out the old saw: “I should like to have you all to myself, Susie,” he tells her, as if she were a toy boat or a cookie jar. “I want my wife to remain always the pure happiness and joy of my life. You see, Susie, my great love for you makes me selfish.” This seems to settle the matter; Susie says no more of it and soon has two young children and what appears to be a serious case of post-partum depression.
But I’ve skipped ahead: Back to Anne, who lands the plum job as assistant to Dr. Wallis that everyone had expected to go to Susie, so her auspicious career is nicely underway. She decides to go to Vienna on vacation, and while there is introduced to a virtuoso violinist, Kristof Bardy. The man is a cad and a fop—he has named his walking stick Polyder, and “he considered modesty merely the art of letting other people find out for themselves how good he was”—but she enjoys their evening together.
Then it’s two years later, and Anne has won a major medical prize for her research on “blue babies.” She still sees Kristof from time to time; when he’s in town for a concert he sends her tickets to his performances and then takes her out to dinner. She asks him why he likes her, when he has so many beautiful women chasing him. “Adulation is boring,” he says, and the next day he is off to Barcelona. In thinking things over, Anne wonders if, of the three friends, “her life had not turned out to be the happiest of the three. There might be something missing—but was it worth all the sacrifice and heart-burning that seemed to accompany it?” Oh, we come to the age-old question: Is a life without love worth living? But don’t you worry about Anne. Because George is now working alongside Anne at the hospital, and late one evening he takes her in his arms and kisses her—and then Anne realizes that her resentment of Susie’s marriage was due to the nauseating fact that she’d been in love with George all the time and just hadn’t realized it!
And then it’s four more years under the bridge, and Fleur has married David after all and they have a daughter, and she is in London visiting her old friends. George is so much more “lighthearted” than he ever was, Susie tells Fleur, and this has improved her own happiness, but Fleur realizes that “something had gone out of Susie.” Anne has been offered a two-year research post in a California university, but isn’t sure she wants to take it—she’s still involved with George, who is trying to persuade Anne that he should divorce Susie and marry her, but she won’t have it. She has another date with Kristof, who has a “brilliant” idea: He is about to go to South America for an 18-month tour, so she should go to California and they should get married! “We wouldn’t have to make sacrifices,” he explains. “We would each follow our own particular course right from the beginning. I think it would be a glorious idea, an excellent marriage. Just imagine two people not constantly falling over each other.” Anne rejects this notion, curiously.
She goes to see Susie, whom she has ignored since Susie’s marriage, to tell her—and George, now arrived home—that she’s decided to go to California. As Susie is out of the room ringing for tea, Anne tells George, “We would never be able to persuade ourselves that it was the right thing we had done.” After she’s gone, George turns to Susie and suggests that she go back to work—thinking, but not telling her, that this is like Anne’s earlier suggestion to Susie’s bored daughter that she take up stamp collecting so as to have something to keep her mind busy. “I can’t think how I could have gone on living as I have these past several years,” she answers, full of relief and unspoken reproach for George, who kept her out of her profession for so long only to give it back to her after all these unhappy years. “And if there was a note of sadness in his voice, she was too happy to notice it.” He tells her that he came home early to tell her this idea of his—but I can’t help wondering if he’d really come home to tell her of him and Anne, and that Anne’s ending of the relationship put him off that track.
At home that night, Anne calls Kristof, and he immediately decides that she has changed her mind about marrying him. “She kept silent, knowing that this silence would affect her future,” and then says yes. “After Anne put down the receiver, she stood as if paralyzed, gazing at the thing. Then very slowly she lifted her shoulders. It was almost a shrug, and something that was almost a smile came into her eyes. Who knows? Perhaps the fates did not intend man to shape his own destiny according to his coolly balanced intellect.”
So what are we to make of this? Fleur has the man she always wanted, but she is the most minor character of the three and goes back to Europe after reappearing for a few pages at the end with her beautiful baby. Susie has got her self-respect and her career back, though her husband is a deceitful, condescending ass. Anne, easily the most successful career-wise, has had a lengthy affair with a married man and then decided, almost on a whim, to marry a silly peacock whom she is scarcely going to see for the next two years. I can’t see this working out very well, for some odd reason. But there it is.
This book is not at all a conventional VNRN, between the jumps through time, the two or three lead heroines, and the unconventional marriage at the end. If Anne’s motives and ultimate fate are not very clear at the end—has she decided that marriage even to a fool is better than remaining single?—it’s a thoughtful, interesting, and quiet story, and well worth reading.