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.

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