Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
As a nurse, Bret Ames had always dreamed of marrying a doctor, yet when handsome Dr. Nels Larson proposed, she began to have her doubts. Strong, yet gentle, he was the kind of man a girl could lean on. But that was just the trouble. Was he too self-sufficient? Somehow she found herself irresistibly drawn to Dick Travers who needed her care and her love, but who belonged to another woman.
“He’s under sixty and male—that makes him just your type.”
“Half of you is twice as much as any other woman.”
“I won’t deny your husband’s obvious charms, but charms were meant for bracelets, not marriage.”
“Why is it that the unhappy people of this world hold so much power over the happiness of others?”
“How those smashing waves and rough rocks must be torturing his tender stumps!”
“I didn’t lose my head, just my legs.”
I’ve waited a while for a nurse novel as campy as this one—and camp is something I hold quite dear. So it is with disappointment that I must declare that as much as I wanted to adore this book, the story line just couldn’t match the zingy one-liners. Besides, I was disappointed that a novel called San Francisco Nurse gave us little apart from a dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf—where only tourists venture—of that fine city.
When Chief of Nurses Bret Ames first claps eyes on Dick Travers, he is a “sour apple.” In for a nephrectomy after stones destroyed his kidney, he is as mean as they come—and now, with just one kidney, “only half a man,” he despairs. But she has a way with these types, and so she gladly takes on the challenge of trying to perk him up. Darn it, though, he is just so stubborn! “Look, Little Miss Sunshine,” he snaps at her, “you can save the routine for vaudeville, it may come back some day and you’ll need it.” You can see why after just a couple of minutes of his bitterness, she’s ready to throw in the towel, and not just because “she felt piqued at being so thoroughly ignored. There was no admiration in those dark eyes when he looked at her tall, well-distributed figure.” The nerve!
She soon finds out what his problem is—it’s Virginia Travers, Dick’s malevolent wife, who drove him to the brink of bankruptcy, left him for a wealthier man, and then nearly ruined his reputation when she found out he was in love with one of his graduate students. Her sugar daddy played out and the grad student long frightened away, she’s returned to Dick’s side, insisting he take her back. “I know now what his trouble is—a she-devil wife,” Bret concludes.
Under the terrible strain of his loss of manhood and the return of his evil wife, Dick refuses to smile for Bret. She eventually loses her cool with him, calls him—to his face!—an “ungrateful sour apple,” and then surprisingly kisses him full on the lips. “Dear God, I’m in love with him! Completely, crazily in love!” Bret thinks to herself. And so we have yet another dopey heroine falling for a man who has been nothing but mean to her. It isn’t too long before he’s taking her in his arms and kissing her, but given the Mrs. stomping around the hospital on her stilettos, those scenes are few and followed by guilty quarrels, as Dick sees no way out of his marriage.
So, in an attempt to cool her jets, Bret oddly decides to go visit Mrs. Travers at her home on the Berkeley campus of State University (and times have certainly changed; she drives across the Bay Bridge at 35 mph and is not killed, and the toll is 25 cents—now it’s $6 during rush hour). There, she tells Mrs. Travers that she is going to marry Dr. Nels Larsen, a fabulous doctor and all-around swell guy. “Self-possessed, he needed no one’s reassurance or approbation,” she thinks of Nels on their second date. “She would never lose her identity as Nels’ wife. He would not demand that her every waking thought be devoted to him—he did not need that kind of reassurance.” Sounds like a peach! Naturally she’ll never be able to love him.
When Dick finds out about this, though—and Bret is oddly shocked and furious that the Mrs. should pass along the 411 about the engagement to her spouse—Dick turns right back into that sour apple. He’s nasty, cruel, and shows up at Bret’s engagement party to slap her with the news that he got divorced four days ago—it apparently not crossing his mind to let her know before the announcement party—and chews her out for not waiting for him, when he gave her no reason whatsoever to do so. He also dares to say that “Nels will never give you the chance to be yourself,” when this is the opposite of what Bret had thought of him. “Nels needs nothing from you to make him a man!” he claims, and then clubs her with his parting shot: “I became a man for you. But I overrated your courage by asking you to be a woman for me.” Whatever that means, it completely overlooks his effeminate lack of kidney.
But now all we have left is to undo the engagement between Nels and Bret and all will be right. For your further enjoyment, there’s a side plot about a young man whose legs had to be amputated after a car crash, his engagement to a nurse friend of Bret’s, and his insistence that he cannot marry Sue unless he, too, can “be a man,” even with mere stumps for legs. I’m not sure what all this manliness is all about and why it’s so important to the gents in this book, but it really doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble for them or for their lady friends.
I was also not impressed at the way Nels is built up as a great guy in the beginning of the book, only to be depicted as a completely different man when Bret needs to dump him. His character change lets Bret off the hook too easily; she should have to man up herself, acknowledging the simple truth that she can’t marry Nels because she loves someone else, regardless of what an ass that man is, and not pretend her fickleness is due to any alleged flaw Nels possesses. She neither has to make any effort to go after Dick, because the very second she decides that she’s through with Nels, Dick’s hand drops on her shoulder. So while the zingers are hilarious fun, and these alone make San Francisco Nurse worth reading, the plotting just doesn’t have the backbone to carry this book to the top of the mark.