Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi
Three men called her “Jenny, Darling.” There was Tom, honest and sincere, who wanted her as a “full-time wife.” There was Mike—Mike to her, to others a screen idol and notorious playboy—who had fallen hard for her and had said, “This time it’s forever.” And there was Brad, the young doctor who shared her dreams and her dedication—but was engaged to another girl.
“I’d marry you for your cooking even if you were an old hag.”
“She was incurably romantic despite the fact of being an old maid.”
“ ‘Oh, Tom,’ she sighed in a trembly, little girl voice guaranteed to bring out the protective in males.”
“ ‘I make good home for Johnnie. I give him much love and smiling face. Is right way, Miss Tyler?’
“ ‘It’s the wise way, Koyo,’ Jenny answered. ‘The way to happiness in a marriage. Don’t ever change.’ ”
Jenny Tyler works at the Holly View Sanitarium in Beverly Hills, where unhealthy movie people go to get well. She’s in love with Dr. Bradford Conners, but after he got one look at the chief of staff’s glamorous daughter, Faye Kettering, ambition and testosterone got the better of him and he dumped Jenny to propose to Faye. A business proposal soon followed, and now Brad is the chief’s assistant and medical heir. As the book opens, Brad and Jenny—who still have to work together, of course—are squabbling over the hospital’s central philosophy, which is that the medical staff should only tell patients what they want to hear. Which means that sweet old Western actor Laredo Sims, found to be in possession of an inoperable lung tumor, is left ignorant of his fatal condition. “People in the entertainment business live in a world of pretense,” Brad tells Jenny. “Truth is a stranger to them. An unwelcome one.”
Even Jenny’s roommate, Suzan, prefers illusion to reality. “Don’t be so darn truthful and practical,” she tells Jenny. “It takes the fun out of my dreaming.” Suzan is engaged to Dr. Kris McKenzie, but early in the book Suzan comes down with flu-like symptoms and is found to have an unexplained bruise on her shoulder. You will not be shocked to learn that Suzan is soon diagnosed with leukemia and given less than six weeks to live. You will be even less shocked that Suzan is the only one who isn’t told this. Curiously, Jenny instantly decides that “truth, which had always been the principle she believed in and practiced, must be exchanged for pretense.” Despite the fact that she has taken the opposite view on Laredo Sims’ case, virtually identical to Suzan’s, Jenny decides that she has to “give Suzan hope for a little longer.” When Suzan finally figures it out, she takes it in stride that all her friends have been lying to her, curiously. She and Kris decide to get married—and the hospital staff pools its resources, giving the newlyweds a check for $230 which “meant that they could have a honeymoon.” Today this amount would buy you four days at a Motel 6 and McDonald’s, but I guess there’s been some inflation in the past fifty years.
When she’s not battling illness and illusion at work and at home, Jenny is struggling to decide who to marry. Tom Russell is kind, dependable, and in love with her. “She had only to give him a little encouragement and he’d surely propose. Why not, she asked herself. Tom would make a good husband. He was nice-looking, charming, fun to be with, and they shared similar interests.” Marriage, in most VNRNs, is first and foremost a business deal, unless love sweeps all common sense under the rug. But Tom wants Jenny to quit nursing if they are married, so this—and her love for Brad—keep her single. Soon another beau enters the scene: Mike Ryan, who is a sort of George Clooney–type movie star. Despite his reputation as a lothario, he proposes within a week and is apparently quite serious; turns out he’s been looking for an honest woman, but Jenny’s the first one he ever met in Hollywood. Jenny goes to lots of glamorous parties with Mike and seriously considers marrying him, but in the end decides that she could never be at home in his world of glitter and indolence. “Love wasn’t enough, Jenny wanted to tell him. It took understanding and tolerance and the wanting to share each other’s interests and thoughts for a successful marriage. Mike’s world was pretending. Hers was reality.” Of course, she doesn’t really love him, either, so that would be a bit of a handicap as well.
In the meantime, Brad is still carrying on a low-grade flirtation with Jenny, dancing with her at the hospital ball and fighting with her when her bitterness about being dumped makes her catty. Eventually Brad becomes impatient with all the bickering, and asks her, “Can’t you stop being such a fighter?” This puts her in a tailspin: “Had her job made her so independent that she had become less of a woman? Stand up for what you believe. Speak the truth. There it was again. The principles she had governed her life by were proving to have a high price. Faye was no fighter, that was a foregone conclusion. She was every inch a woman. Softly feminine and seeming helpless. No wonder Brad had fallen into her trap. Dumb like a fox. That was Faye Kettering.” I have to say, I’d take integrity over a wedding ring, any day, but that’s just me.
With all her beaux off the table, Jenny decides to take a job in another hospital in Oregon, close to her home town. When Brad comes to tell Jenny goodbye, he blurts out that he is less than satisfied with his prospects: “My future all decided with no sweat or struggle involved. All I’ll have to do is agree with my father-in-law and cater to my wife. A small price for success, wouldn’t you say?” Jenny is surprised by Brad’s bitterness, especially when he tells her, “You’ve been a banner of truth in a citadel of illusion,” now apparently coming to appreciate the very qualities he despised at book’s open. This leads them both to agree that “truth should be tempered with kindness, even with little white lies sometimes. Just as illusion should never replace reality. There was room and need for both.” It’s a pat lesson, not really earned, and it falls flat.
Jenny is all packed and ready to go, but Laredo Sims is dying and asks that she come see him. There’s this little matter of a forest fire in the Hollywood hills near the hospital, but Jenny talks her way past the fire trucks blocking the road. Unfortunately, she runs out of gas about a mile up the hill, and the flames are about to overtake her as she runs screaming hysterically down the road, but Brad pulls up on a white horse—oh, no, it was just his car—and carries her up the hospital, where she recovers from smoke inhalation for a few days. It’s just a few pages from the end, and you can surely figure out what happens in the final paragraphs. Except poor Laredo Sims apparently dies alone, because he’s never mentioned again.
This book, written before Patricia Libby’s excellent Winged Victory for Nurse Kerry and Cover Girl Nurse, has none of their camp or humor or even interest. It’s fairly plodding, as nurse novels go, and the whole central theme of truth versus illusion is too easily dismissed with Brad and Jenny’s agreement to compromise. I had high hopes for this book, but apparently it took Ms. Libby a bit to hit her stride. Unfortunately, this is apparently the last of the three nurse novels she wrote, so there will be no chance of redemption, except to go back and revisit the two novels we’ve already read. And given their fabulousness, you might want to consider just that.