Saturday, February 25, 2012

Surgical Nurse

By Rosie M. Banks
(pseud. Alan Jackson), ©1959
Cover illustration by Bob Abbett

Nurse Althea Jones, young and lovely, worshiped her boss, Dr. Mike. He was a brilliant surgeon. Handsome—and married. So Althea did not admit—even to herself—that she loved him. But the day came that shattered her life. Dr. Mike leaned down and kissed his pretty nurse. Not a friendly kiss but one filled with unleashed passion. Then he recovered his control and the moment was over—for him. But for her, that was a moment of beginning. How could she forget, ever, the pressure of his lips on hers? How could she ever marry anyone else, knowing that her heart belonged to him? She knew it was hopeless. But there had to be a way, somehow, somewhere, someday!


“I promise you can do more for your hospital seated opposite me at our dinner table than assisting at three thousand operating tables.”

“Althea, dear, you are too beautiful a woman to hide your face behind a surgical mask.”

“You’re always talking and acting like some damned angel of mercy. Why don’t you get yourself some real mercy and turn into a woman?”

“Work is the way to get over these things, work and concentration on a job. Not sitting on your bucolic fanny and staring at your bucolic umbilicus, and thinking about what’s happened and getting sorry for yourself.”

“There is nothing more egocentric than a patient.”

“Very often we are most blind to the persons most close to us.”

Althea Jones is a surgical nurse, and when she takes off her mask after an operation, all the doctors stop to look, because she has “one of the most beautiful faces any of them had ever seen.” Much is made of her impossible beauty throughout the book. This is slightly unusual among VNRN heroines: Although they are almost all pretty, few are outstandingly gorgeous. I wonder if her exceptional appearance is in any way due to the fact that the author of this book is actually a man.

Althea has a beau, of course, Joseph de P. Saylor III, a very talented and wealthy artist. He’s desperately mad to marry her, it seems chiefly because she is not really interested in marrying him, unlike all the other women, who throw themselves at him. She doesn’t love him, for starters, and he would insist she quit her job. So she tells him, right there on page 10, that she can’t marry him. But we are already wise to Althea: Just three pages earlier, Dr. Hal Meikeljohn—known as Dr. Mike—has snapped at Althea for not paying attention for the last minute of his surgery, and one nurse remarks to another, “They’re in love and they haven’t the faintest idea that it’s going on. Yet.”

The big obstacle would be Marcia Meikeljohn, Hal’s wife. Marcia is a wealthy socialite who set out to marry Hal because he would be an asset to the hospital that her family has built. “But fundamentally she was incapable of love,” we are told, and it isn’t 18 months after Hal is snared by Marcia’s carefully timed kisses that he realizes that the marriage is a mistake, telling her, “An emergency to you is nothing more than something that makes me late for dinner. It is an irritation to you, almost an insult.” If only he’d married a nurse, who would be more understanding of a surgeon’s lifestyle …

So now we have 100 pages to get through until Althea and Hal get together, and unfortunately, there’s not much to report about them. There’s a nurse whose sister, abandoned with an infant son by her traveling salesman husband, is trying to find money so they can raise the baby themselves (they’ve allowed a childless couple to have him in the interim). Althea’s other beau, Joe refuses to take no for an answer and chases Althea some more. Marcia realizes that Hal is in love with Althea and invites Althea to parties so she can play mind games. And in the end—you’ll never see this coming—Marcia is neatly disposed of. Althea and Hal are united in a single swift and unsatisfying final page, and not even a slightly campy exchange (“Oh, Doctor, this is conduct most unbecoming a nurse.” “But becoming to a woman.”) can save it.

I have enjoyed two other novels by Rosie M. Banks: Settlement Nurse and Navy Nurse. And I’ve said it before, but here it is again: I particularly enjoy that the author chose for his pen name the same name as a lurid romance novelist from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. But Surgical Nurse is a disappointment. It has none of the camp of its sisters and no real enthusiasm for its storyline. Lengthy side stories about peripheral characters—Marcia’s pursuit of Hal, and a Spanish immigrant named Pasquale Jimenez whose untimely demise brings together two other peripheral characters—are more intriguing than the main story itself. The writing is smart and sophisticated, with references to Grant Wood, Nantucket, and 1953 Chateau Margeaux. But this actually makes the book that much more of a disappointment, because it’s evident on every page that the author could have written a much better book if he’d put more thought into the plot. So while I can’t completely dismiss Surgical Nurse, it’s not much of a joy, either.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nurse Barclay’s Dilemma

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1954
Cover illustration by Bob Abbett

Condition: Serious. Nurse Frances Barclay knew it would take more than physical therapy to set her patient, Mark Ennis, on the road to recovery. Mark had been a prisoner of war in Korea, but his refusal to respond to treatment came from something much deeper than the physical torture he had endured. Something else happened to Mark, something that left a raw emotional scar. Before that scar could heal, Nurse Barclay would have to uncover Mark’s tormenting secret, however painful it might be to both of them.


“All women, especially if they were happily married themselves, wanted to see their single women friends married and happy too.”

“Idleness, trying to mark time, is actually the hardest work anyone can do, you know.”

“He liked people who knew their own minds without any shillyshallying. A rare thing in a woman. Especially one as young and pretty as this nurse.”

“If only she had a mother. A father isn’t much good around sickness.”

“The whole kitchen is a dream—any woman would enjoy keeping house with such modern equipment.”

“It’s a good thing Tommy isn’t attractive, because Paul has had to be thrown with her so much all summer long. […] Most women are cats, really they are, Fran, when it comes to men. A woman will go to almost any lengths to get a man. The fact that he belongs to another woman never stops the other woman from trying. And she doesn’t consider it sneaky or underhanded—all’s fair in love and war, you know!”

“I never thought you’d behave like other silly women—a nurse like you.”

Closing this book, after having waded through 191 molasses-like pages, I glanced at the title. Dilemma? What dilemma? Only the cover copy reminded me that Nurse Fran Barclay had experienced any sort of possible predicament—but since her problem seemed to be that she was in love with a man who didn’t love her, you can hardly see that she had any choice in the situation.

Fran is a nurse/physical therapist in a Georgia sanitarium, and has been assigned to work with a difficult case. Mark “was in prison camp, you see, for more than two years—all those men had a rough time, as we know. Brain washing, torture, near-starvation, neglect and loneliness. It’s small wonder none of them want to talk about it. But most of them, now that they’re back home again, put such experiences behind them and try to take up living again.” Mark, however, is not being a good sport. He hardly ever speaks, he’s nothing but skin and bones and too weak to even feed himself, and he makes no effort to get well. The sanitarium director assigns Fran to work with Mark one-on-one, morning, noon, and night, because Fran is so young and cute that ole Mark is bound to snap out of it with her around. Besides, she might also be able to worm out of him why he’s so gosh-darned glum all the time!

In the meantime, Paul Franklin, a former patient who happens to be a rich widower with two young children, proposes to Fran. He acknowledges that they don’t love each other, but she’s a great nurse, and she thinks his children are “nice.” “Of course she supposed he had made inquiries as to her background. He must know that she came from sound American stock. She felt as though she had been put on an auction block. She was not at all certain she relished the feeling.” But that doesn’t stop her from agreeing to marry him, anyway in a year or so. She and her roommate, Cordelia Thompson, then spend the weekend at Paul’s house, and “Tommy” and Paul soon find themselves talking like old friends. Tommy goes missing during a fancy dinner party and is found in the kids’ room covered with feathers from an abused pillow. When she returns to the party, she transforms it into a lively evening from the dull event it had been in her absence. Does anyone else see the writing on the wall here?

When Fran returns to work, Mark seems to have missed her. She gives him a good scolding, and tells him that she likes him—are you sure that’s all it is, Fran?—and he tucks into his breakfast like never before. Then Fran discovers a photo of a beautiful woman in Mark’s drawer. It’s been torn in half, then taped together again. So this is the reason Mark doesn’t want to get well! We knew it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with suffering two years of starvation and torture! The woman in question, Odette, shows up at the sanitarium and is imperious and condescending to Fran, but Mark begs Fran not to leave him alone with his visitor. So Fran hears all about how Odette married Mark’s uncle Drexel instead of waiting for Mark to come home from the war, but Odette wants a divorce and to come back to Mark, if he’ll have her. He tells Odette that he’s going to marry Fran, and Fran’s little heart goes pitter-pat.

I wish there were some interesting plot turns to reveal, or at least chuckle over, but no such luck. Paul’s young daughter comes down with polio, and Fran and Tommy nurse her 24/7 at Paul’s house, bringing Tommy and Paul together a lot more. The two reach an understanding but, curiously, decide not to mention this to Fran, who still thinks she and Paul are to be married in a few months. Eventually Fran decides to release Paul from their engagement because she could never love him as much as she does Mark, and she hypocritically tells Tommy to put the moves on Paul: “It’s perfectly all right for the woman to pop the question in this modern atomic age,” she says, though she can’t bring herself to tell Mark that she is in love with him.

All rights itself in a lightning-quick page and a half, after all the shillyshallying we have endured up to this point, making for a wholly unsatisfying book and ending. I will put up with a lot of wandering in a book if the heroine has lively friends and a pleasant lifestyle. But Fran and Tommy mostly just bicker over Fran’s inability to tell Mark of her feelings for him, spurred by Tommy’s unspoken resentment of Fran’s engagement to the man Tommy loves. Fran has few other friends, never goes out, doesn’t date other men, has no lively conversations. This book has absolutely none of the spice of the two other Adelaide Humphries books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, Office Nurse and Nurse Landon’s Challenge. Everyone is entitled to an off moment, and Nurse Barclay’s Dilemma was certainly hers.