Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surfing Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1971
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

“Too good to be true!” was how Nurse Kara Simmon felt about her temporary assignment away from St. Mark’s. For she was on Surfari with the American Surfing Team as team nurse and as top competitor in the World Championships in Australia. And now this halcyon dream is abruptly shattered as she finds herself pulled by conflicting desires more turbulent and dangerous than the pounding surf … Caught between two men—brothers in name only. Surgeon/surfer Paul Denning, blond, handsome, coolly professional—who seems more interested in her skills than in herself as a woman. And Ross, the professional surfer—wild, headstrong, his animal magnetism undeniable… In conflict between the same, familiar world of nursing and an exciting new world of the professional surfer’s endless summers on the beaches of the world.


“Kara had won wolf whistles and applause herself when she walked into the South Sea Lounge with Ross. The spontaneity of that had made her feel good.”

“Let’s make this last dance really Hawaiian! The rest of you make a circle and undulate!”

“You don’t even know me yet. How can you when we haven’t even kissed?”

“She must stop him soon now, she knew. But for a moment still she could thrill to the male warmth pressing against her. Moments like this were few when you were a nurse, she remembered. Too often there was sickness and pain, grief and death. And those things built up tensions inside you.”

“These days everyone has doubts. It’s a symptom of the times.”

“They’re good guys, but they exaggerate like Texans.”

“It would be too much to look like you do and be able to cook like that too.”

“Some of the surfers were taking photos of an odd-looking building on the foreshore of Sydney harbor. It looked like something from science fiction, shaped like huge, streamlined orchestral shells in an intriguing pattern. One of the reporters who joined them at the rail explained that it was an opera house and something of a national joke with Australians. It had been years since the building began and nobody seemed to know when, if ever, it would be completed.”

To call this a nurse novel is a bit of a stretch. True, Kara Simmon is a registered nurse with a job at St. Marks Hospital in Los Angeles, and theoretically she’s the official nurse to—as well as a member of—a contingent of American surfers, but she doesn’t really do any nursing in this book. Mostly she’s catching a wave. She won the California state women’s surfing title this past summer, which gives her the right to enter a world title competition in Australia. Her surfing mentor, Paul Denning, just happens to be a surgeon at St. Marks. He’s the son of the founder of Denning surfboards, and actually dropped out of his internship twice to pursue surfing, but then decided to return to medicine. He’s the one who coached Kara to her surprising win in California, and the relationship is “an odd sort of intimacy into which sex did not intrude.” It’s not often you meet a VNRN that dares to use the word sex, but maybe that’s because this book was written by a man.

Paul’s younger brother Ross is also entered in the competition, and as the book opens, the American team is on a cruise ship steaming to Australia. Paul has had to remain back in the states practicing medicine, which is lucky for Ross and his enormous ego: “If Paul Denning was with us on this surfari, Paul Denning would win it,” she’s told by one of the other surfers. Ross isn’t likely to win the competition for Kara’s affections, either, the poor conceited sap. He’s convinced Kara is going to tumble for him any second and pursues her relentlessly, much to her annoyance. But when he finally catches up with her one night, he tells her that if she wins this competition, she could make a lot of money and travel the world endorsing Denning surfboards—and she needs his help as a coach to win. She tells him she’s not going to quit nursing, but she agrees to accept his coaching. Only then does he put the moves on her, which she curiously goes along with. I continue to be amazed at the number of women in these novels who kiss men they don’t like.

When the surfing team finally arrives in Australia, Ross takes her out to the beaches and teaches her that she has to maximize her scoring points with each wave. That night, at a beach party, a totally plastered Ross decides to try night surfing, though all the other surfers warn him of the danger. While out in the surf, he is attacked by a shark, which “fastened into his thigh and torn off a long strip of flesh all the way down to his heel.” Ew! Kara applies pressure to the femoral artery until the ambulance arrives, Ross is whisked into surgery, and his life is saved, though his surfing career is over. The never-mentioned upside to this is that he is now spared from ever having to compete directly with his brother in a surfing competition, and so can live on as a champion in his own mind.

The next day, Kara and the rest of the team is back surfing at the beach, the callous dudes. Later she tries to call Paul, but guess what! He’s quit the hospital and is on his way to Australia! He arrives a day later, and Kara quickly persuades him to take Ross’s spot on the team: “Then, and only then, will you really know to which world you belong.” He also takes over Ross’s place as Kara’s coach: “Don’t try any last-minute gimmicks, no matter what Ross tells you,” he advises her. “Surf your own natural style.” During her heat at big competition, she follows his advice—until her last wave, when she hangs five, whatever that means. She knows Paul wouldn’t like that, but thinks Ross would—“Ross was inclined to showboat that way himself.” She wins the heat by just one point, and now she’s in the finals. “She was tempted to try a left break, but memory of the chance she took hanging five drove it from her mind. It was better to stay with her natural style, surfing safely and as well as she could,” just like Paul advised her to do. So what is she doing with her next wave? Why, breaking left, of course. “Don’t ask me why I did that, Paul,” she says as she steps out of the surf onto the beach.

You can predict how this book is going to end in the first chapter. Apart from the shark attack, which takes a long time to unfold, not much happens in this book. It spends a lot of time surfing, but the jargon is so thick that it’s not really enjoyable to a non-surfer: “She set herself and took off, then saw Nerida dropping in on her right. Kara found herself turning instinctively left. She saw the danger at once: a fast right break with a toppling crest rushing toward her along the wall. Flat water ahead! She went into a tight bottom turn. The velocity she had built up steaming across that smooth wall turned her in the beginning of the flaky white—she was steaming back halfway up the face going right now. She was stoking in a glorious long slide ahead of the crest breaking well behind her. Coming out of it at the foot of the wall way right, she flipped out in a backhand turn and rode white water in to the beach.” Whatever that means. Oddly, the book allows Kara to win by following Ross’s advice, not Paul’s, but it’s Paul that she’s in love with and Paul’s lifestyle as a healthcare professional that she is completely devoted to. In the end, I’m just confused by what this book is trying to tell me, both in its message and its surfing descriptions. I wish I’d watched “Gidget” instead.

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