Saturday, October 23, 2010

Private Duty Nurse

By Isabel Cabot
(pseud. Isabel Capeto), ©1958 

Two men wanted lovely young Nurse Johnson. Phil Tyler, a widower, was rich and attractive. And Eleanor knew his motherless little girl needed her woman’s care and love. But young Dr. Grant was a gifted surgeon who wanted Eleanor to share his brilliant future. Then tragedy struck Phil Tyler’s daughter. Love and duty both impelled Eleanor to help, but she knew that in this crucial test she must have a man’s strength and wisdom to guide her. To which of her lovers would she turn? 


“Grant’s in the kitchen fixing a hypodermic needle.” 

“I’ve a good mind to kick the next man who treats me like a sister.” 

This book starts out with an original twist (well, at least original when it comes to VNRNs): It opens on a scene with Fay Lord discussing a blind date she has set up between Dr. Grant Tyler and her roommate, Eleanor Johnson. The joke is, Dr. Grant thinks it’s Fay’s other roommate, Connie, he’s going out with, and won’t the laugh be on Mr. “High-and-Mighty! … Here he is expecting a beautiful, statuesque redhead and out comes Ellie.” It isn’t until the middle of Chapter 2 that the spotlight shifts to Ellie and stays there, and we realize that Ellie is really the heroine of the book, not Fay. 

On the ill-contrived date, Dr. Grant admits that Eleanor is “not too bad-looking,” but adds, “But neither is she any Helen of Troy. She couldn’t launch a boat of surgical instruments, let alone a thousand ships.” The metaphor is a little contrived, but you get the point. Their date comes to an abrupt end when Grant takes her to Lookout Walk, grabs her, and, though she struggles to get away, tries to kiss her. She pushes him over a stone wall, and he fakes injury. When she approaches him to help, he grabs her again. “I’ll kiss you right, if it’s the last thing I do,” he tells her, and he’s about to when she hits him over the head with a rock to escape, jumps in his car, and drives herself home. Of course, this only intrigues Grant further: “Eleanor had felt so soft and sweet in his arms. And for the briefest moment her lips had been almost responsive under his.” Because there’s nothing like a sexual assault to really turn a girl on. It’s almost more outrageous that, for the rest of the book, he talks as if he were the one who was attacked. “I wonder how the Registry feels about private duty nurses who assault people and steal their cars,” he says to her when he sees her next—and she then blushes and asks, “Do you intend to report me?” as if his version is in fact the accurate one. 

A few days later Ellie is begged to take on a case nursing Thomas G. Tyler, who has had a heart attack, on the night shift. Mr. Tyler is Grant’s uncle, and a very wealthy man in town. When she arrives at the mansion, she naturally runs into the nephew, but he is too worried about “The Captain” to really notice her. As time passes, though, Ellie sees a lot of Grant and Phillip, Mr. Tyler’s widowed son, both around the house and around town. Ellie has no car, so she gets rides to and from work frequently from Phil, who soon asks her out on a date. He seems like a nice guy, and they have a pleasant evening. But when he drops her off at the mansion for her night duty, he, too, grabs her, kisses her, and won’t let go. Only Grant’s appearance at the car door encourages Phil to loosen his hold. Ellie, however, seems not at all alarmed by his aggression and tells him “thanks loads” when he offers to bring in her uniform, which she has left in his car. A few days later she’s out on another dinner date with him. 

And it’s not long before Grant is at it again. He asks her out on a date—and she actually agrees to go, shame on her—but once in her apartment, he “gripped her arm. ‘Let me go,’ she said coolly.” Later in the book, Grant “took her roughly by the shoulders” and does not release her even when she says he is hurting her. These violent tendencies seem not to faze her at all, and once these incidents are over, they never again cross her mind—indeed, rather than finding Grant sick and sadistic, she is attracted to him. Later recalling her first date with him, “her face flushed when she thought of the way they had tussled. And he had had the audacity to laugh. It had been a pleasant laugh, she had to admit. And his lips on hers hadn’t been as harsh as she had anticipated. For the briefest moment—she felt her face burn hotter. Couldn’t she ever forget that night?” But at the same time, she continues to find Grant’s arrogant behavior irritating. He tells her he’s forgiven her for “slugging” him, and when she is appropriately outraged, he replies, “You’re dying for me to kiss you. … Why fight it? You’re afraid to come within a foot of me. What’s the matter? Don’t you trust yourself?” 

The book starts to wrap itself up few pages later when Phil is found in the park with a gash on his head and is hospitalized, near death. Some missing jewelry turns up under a rock in the garden and then vanishes again, accusations of extortion and bribery are made against the wife of the prominent doctor who is officially attending Mr. Tyler, and then Phil’s five-year-old daughter disappears. One of the Tyler boys turns out to be thoroughly rotten, and Ellie ends up engaged to the other one. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that she falls for the character that comes across as the most despicable, and the apparently nice guy is actually not at all. 

I really had issues with the creepy way the men who date her seem to enjoy manhandling Ellie. My disliking of Grant was instant and severe after he mauled her at Lookout Walk, and his subsequent insistence that she was in the wrong that night didn’t help him any. But if that scene and his other attempts to grab her hadn’t occurred, I wouldn’t think he is such a monster. His remark that she is dying to be kissed by him is arrogant and asinine, but it’s not unforgiveable, and it must be acknowledged that this sort of comment is de rigueur for VNRNs. (That’s a topic of discussion for another day.) The regularity with which Ellie is pawed makes me wonder if this was a common practice back in the late ’50s or if Isabel Cabot just thinks this is a nifty device to bring the heroine into a clinch, as of course no nice girl would willingly participate in such a thing unless she was forced to. Whatever the reason for these scenes, they just don’t play in the 21st century, and they bring down what would otherwise be a good book.

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