Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik
“What exactly is an honorary?” Joan Langden asked her fellow nurses on her first day at St. Angela’s.
“A visiting consultant—either physician or surgeon,” explained the senior. “Usually they are men with big reputations. They give their services to the hospital free.”
“Oh!” though Joan softly. So Garth at twenty-nine was an “honorary.” An important surgeon with a reputation. She had known only vaguely of his connection with St. Angela’s and hadn’t been sure just what it was. It warmed her heart to hear the quick commendation of him in this girl’s voice. It made her glow with secret happiness that she might see him soon at his work … but although Joan had known Doctor Garth most of her life, she now found there were many things she didn’t understand about him. Why did he make her feel she was something “special” to him and yet keep so distant? And what was his connection with the pretty mother and her son on whom he was to operate? The story of Joan and Doctor Garth is an unusually appealing one.
“There was no use being a nurse if you were going to be squeamish.”
“It would be good indeed if a heart could be no more and no less than Miss Don was describing it, a little chalk sketch on a blackboard, a queer, impersonal muscle with complicated vascular and arterial equipment, a bundle of valves and pumps that had nothing to do with aching and grieving, that could not possibly lie like a lump of stone in a person’s breast day after day!”
Joan Langden is a 21-year-old nurse from the English countryside who has been in love with 29-year-old Dr. Garth Perros since she was knee-high to a tea table. She’s just starting her nurse’s training in the hospital where he is a surgeon, and all is going swimmingly between them until the arrival of the adorable seven-year-old Ivan Petrovna, stricken with appendicitis, and his mother, ballet dancer Vera. From the moment he claps eyes on Vera, Garth is “ashen” and walking around like a zombie. Soon enough, Joan learns the horrific truth: Garth knew Vera eight years ago, and the little tyke Ivan is the product of their friendship.
Joan is almost literally hysterical with this news, acting as if she has learned that Garth is a serial axe murderer with anal warts. “Garth was lost to her,” Joan wails, and she is incable of even speaking to looking at Garth, much less speaking to him. “She wanted to be done with him now and forever. He had failed her,” she moans. Eventually, however, Garth forces her into a corner, where he offers her an explanation: He is actually married to Vera, though they had only gotten hitched because she needed a green card, and stayed together for just one summer before she took off, and he had been unable to track her down. So after 25 pages of Joan’s frantic heartbreak over Garth’s bastard child, now that the poor boy has been legitimized, we relive the sloppy hysterics anew over his marriage: “Garth was lost to her hopelessly and forever! The dream of her whole girlhood was burned to ashes. Garth! her heart cried in anguish. Garth!” And there’s another 25 pages of pale cheeks, stony looks, sobbing in bed, and sickening jerks of the heart now that we know that he’s not just a father, but a husband as well.
Eventually Garth corners Joan again and tells her that Vera will agree to a divorce if he promises never to see Ivan again, so will Joan marry him when it’s all fixed? After thinking it over, though, Joan selflessly decides that she cannot accept Garth’s proposal of marriage—if she turns him down, Garth will stay with Vera, and, more importantly to everyone concerned, with Ivan, who needs a father. And indeed, soon Vera and Ivan have moved into Garth’s flat, and Ivan is the happiest boy ever! But if Garth and Vera couldn’t last more than a summer when it was just the two of them, things aren’t going to last that even long now that there’s the boy to consider as well. Vera, it turns out, is unhealthily obsessed with Ivan, refusing to allow him to go to school or even have friends his own age. She is furious that Garth wants her to give up the stage, and has her Russian friends over for vodka and caviar and loud, brash parties. Take a wild guess as to how we dispose of Garth’s bride.
But before she goes, Vera—who until now had been a largely sympathetic character and even a friend of Joan’s—becomes “the poor girl with her mind half crazed at last, hiding her son in that poverty-stricken cottage, changing her name, half-starving herself, driven on by the senseless fears which were a legacy from her terrible, tragic childhood.” It’s as if VNRN authors can’t bring themselves to treat these up-until-now noble characters so shabbily unless they give them a hideous makeover first, a literary insult to injury. Furthermore, even before Vera is dispatched, all the utter impossibility of being with Garth, the pages upon pages of wailing and gnashing teeth, are utterly forgotten. “Her heart was singing suddenly as she slipped on her soft fur coat, thinking that after all it was she who had the most precious part of Garth Perros’ allegiance in spite of all that lay between them. Vera might have his name—his son. But to herself he had given his love.” Which she’d had from chapter one, but it wasn’t much consolation then, so why is it now?
For all my carping, this is mostly an agreeable book. True, Joan’s weeping is a bit much, and the wild oscillations of her logic when it comes to Garth are hard to follow. But the writing is pleasant, if not as stellar as that which brought us Nurse Tennant. Elizabeth Hoy knows how to create real emotion in her readers, and this book, if not the best, is a pleasant outing, worth taking.