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.