Saturday, March 3, 2012

Special Nurse

By Margaret Howe, ©1955

Nan Warner was proud of her first job at modern Donovan Memorial Hospital. Her devotion to her calling and her radiant youth soon attracted the attention of the doctors. The handsome, arrogant Chief of Staff tried to win Nan for himself alone, while Dr. Matt Ferguson watched jealously. And then one day Nan was assigned as special nurse to old Hannah Donovan, whose millions ruled the destinies of Donovan Hospital and its staff. Established at the Donovan mansion, the slim, red-haired nurse found that the autocratic old woman was using her as a pawn in an evil plan which not only involved the two young doctors but also threatened Nan’s happiness as a woman.


BEST QUOTES:“A girl’s heart was unpredictable at best.”

“I like you better when you smile, Nan.”

“Every silly nurse falls in love with a doctor.”

“There was a wonderful future for which to plan with a man who held her heart in his big firm hands.”

I noticed with my 2011 VNRN Awards that eight of the ten best authors won based on reviews of three or fewer reviews (the top four awards were based on just two reviews each). So this year I’m reading more of these authors—and so far, I have to say, the first few I read did not live up to their reputation. Now, with Special Nurse, Margaret Howe has done no better. This book is not so special: The writing is a perfunctory, there are almost no great quotes, and Nan Warner is a shallow, uninteresting heroine whose opinions about other people swing wildly, leaving you think she is either very fickle or slightly demented.

Nan is a nurse at the Donovan Memorial Hospital in Illinois, which is funded by aging dowager Hannah Donovan. Her protégé, the handsome Dr. Richard Harden, has been dating Nan, who goes weak in the knees whenever Dick is around. Then there’s this other doctor, Matthew Ferguson, who is a “diagnostician” in the hospital. Dr. Ferguson is a dedicated physician, one who goes to bat for poor patients, so naturally he butts heads with Dick, who cares only for wealthy patients like Hannah Donovan.

At the book’s opening, Nan does not think much of Matthew. When Matthew discharges Hannah, admitted for a minor cold, so that a “blue baby” can have her room, Nan agrees to go home with Hannah for a week to be her private nurse even though the hospital is “shockingly short of nurses,” as VNRN hospitals usually are. Matthew is angry about that, and tells Nan to get her patient discharged by 4 p.m., in a tone that suggests that “Nan might have been the most stupid and unattractive nurse at Memorial,” because it’s perfectly acceptable to be rude to unattractive nurses.

But during her week with Hannah (which merits only a few pages of the book, despite the impression given by the back cover blurb), she goes for a swim in Lake Michigan and nearly drowns, rescued just as she is going down for the last time by Matthew. So now she can’t exactly hate him. And when she returns to the hospital as the special nurse for the blue baby, she witnesses first-hand both his devoted fight for the best medical care for the boy and Dick’s obvious disregard for the same. Also, she finds that Dick is no longer calling her for dates and that he’s been going out with his secretary. Then Matthew tells her that he loves her. He proves the point by ignoring her in the halls or, when he is forced to talk to her, by being brusque. Nan still yearns for Dick, who was so complimentary of her red curls and bestowed fond glances but never said those three little words. So she decides that Dick only wants a beautiful wife to ornament his career, while Matthew has picked her out because he wants “a helpful mate. A flat-footed, capable woman, thought Nan scornfully,” though I’m not sure why she should be scornful of the idea of marrying a helpful, capable woman, unless the implication is that such women can’t possibly be attractive.

It’s not too tough to see where this is going. Nan slowly turns her affections toward Matthew, and Dick slowly turns his affections back to Nan. In the end, Hannah is admitted to the hospital—really sick this time, with gallbladder disease—and Dick, afraid for his reputation lest Hannah not make it, refuses to operate. Eventually Matthew is forced to do the surgery, Hannah survives, Matthew is lionized (and offered a key job at the hospital by Hannah), and Dick’s reputation drops into the bedpan.

In the final chapters, we are treated to even more of the standard VNRN conventions. Dick becomes increasingly desperate and forces himself on Nan just as Matthew walks into the room. Nan, natch, can’t possibly “humble herself” and tell Matthew what really happened: “How could she make it clear to Matthew that she loved him without sacrificing her pride?” (I’m not quite clear what pride has to do with it, unless it’s that women should never appear to be chasing a man.) Then Dick meets Nan, who is wandering around in the rain in an attempt to find Matthew’s house, forces her into his car, and proposes marriage, insisting that she tell him yes or no. Curiously, Nan’s reaction is that “it was so like Harden to take advantage of a situation like this to force an answer.” Why does she resent the fact that he wants a reply? How is he taking advantage of her? Is the handle on the car door not working? Nan’s somewhat bizarre reactions make me feel like I am observing a foreign culture.

The clinching cliché is that Dick and Nan are involved in a car accident, and the previously distant Matthew rushes to her bedside. She is able to rouse herself from her delirium to fling her arms around him and kiss him, so everything is going to be all right in the end. Maybe. In the most ambiguous final page I’ve ever encountered, she tells Matthew that “if I can…” she will always try to love him and understand that “his work came first. And she must not annoy him by foolish fears.” He answers, “If you can, my darling, we’ll have a good marriage.” Mighty big if, I say.

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