Friday, July 13, 2012

Nurses of the Tourist Service

By Gladys Fullbrook, ©1962
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

Just as Paula had passed her nursing and midwifery finals, her fiancé backed out of their engagement, and to try to recover from the blow she wanted to get away from everything. Accompanied by her loyal friend Rosalind, she joined the Tasmanian Tourist Nursing Service. Her efforts were rewarded, for, in that smiling apple-blossom island, she found a new life, and a greater happiness than she had ever known.


“Was he, in spite of his pleasant looks, a narrow-minded prig?”

“You can stop manhandling me. I’m OK now.”

“I’m sorry for people who are dead.”

“I don’t think forty-seven is such a terrible age.”

“They were young, they were good to look upon—and they were going to a party.”

By the time Nurses of the Tourist Service had crawled its way through 191 pages, I thoroughly disliked our heroine, Paula Bruce. This is probably not what the author had in mind, but there it is. If we’re given a limp dishrag that is essentially drifting through her own life and making little or no effort to steer, I’m just not going to be grateful.

For their first assignment out of nursing school, Paula and her best friend Rosalind Lane enlist in the Tasmanian Tourist Nursing Service. Before they go, however, there’s the matter of Paula’s fiancé, Bob Shaw, to dispose of. This is actually done on the novel’s first page. But after a few days of “convulsive sobs,” Paula pulls herself together—a little too well, actually. A few pages later, “I’ve wondered if I really and truly loved Bob.” Well, call me fickle. Then, when she arrives in Tasmania and is out on a date with Dr. Christopher Deane, a surgeon in a large hospital there, who bobs up professing undying love but, well, Bob. He pulls her off to dance with him, holds her hands and kisses her, and though she tells him that it’s all over, Christopher seems to think it’s all over for him and leaves without saying goodbye.

Paula regrets the evening, as she kind of liked the old man—he’s 37—and vows that if she runs into him again, “she’d try to let him know the true facts. He might not be interested, but at least he would know she was not that sort of girl and that was what mattered most.” She actually contrives their second meeting, at the hospital. It’s the end of her late-night shift, and a fellow nurse offers to call a cab for her. But she turns down the offer and actually lies to the nurse, saying that a friend is giving her a ride. She knows Christopher will soon be leaving the hospital, so she waits by the door until he comes out, knowing he will see her setting out alone in the dark and do the chivalrous thing; he apparently has a lot more honor than she does. He drives her home and walks her to her door—“Oh, good! Paula thought thankfully—but then he sees a photo of Bob in her handbag and becomes a little chilly. Instead of explaining, she becomes inexplicably angry and stomps off in a huff.

One such idiocy is an acceptable moment of weakness, but this pattern repeats itself again and again, to my progressing annoyance. Paula pines for Christopher with increasing ardor when they are apart, soon coming to realize that she loves him and at the same time understanding that he was hurt and misled by her behavior with Bob. But she just can’t bring herself to be a mature, reasonable adult, instead transforming into a rude shrew the minute he is in the room. The next time she sees him, it’s at a dance; he kisses her, and she again becomes angry and storms away. It’s not that she doesn’t know better: In between these meetings, she’s stewing about how badly she manages things: “Her own stupid pride was partly to blame. She had been hurt and angry at Christopher’s attitude, and she had cause. But, and she sighed again, it was not the way to clear the air between them. Was it too late even now? Paula wondered. Could she sink her own pride and break through this web of misunderstanding?” Apparently not; on at least four more occasions, she has an opportunity to let him know the actual state of her relationship with Bob—not to mention whom she actually is in love with—but she only snaps at him and walks away. Then he’s seen out with a clinging, beautiful redhead. “She was seized suddenly with bitter regret she hadn’t been bold enough to shape the pattern of the last few months. She could have done it, she felt, if only she had been willing to sink her own pride. And now it’s too late. Perhaps I did make a mistake.” The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

It’s not just with Christopher that she’s unable to be open. Her friend Rosalind becomes engaged to Angus Lowther, the best kind of man—a wealthy, older gentleman with a heart condition. But before this comes to pass, both women initially believe Angus’ attentions are intended for Paula, and even the dimmest reader can see that this is the cause of Rosalind’s increasing coolness toward Paula. Though Paula often wonders what’s up with her friend, she can’t actually ask. “There was a hard flippancy about Rosalind these days that she did not very much like. But she said nothing and waited.” This, in a nutshell, is her problem: Whenever her relationships are not working out, she says nothing and waits. What really makes me angry is that this strategy is always completely effective. When Paula finally figures out—entirely on her own, since she can’t ever have a conversation with anyone—that the two are in love, she’s out on a double date with Angus as her beau, and Rosalind is with another guy. Now, any sensible good friend would immediately make an effort to cut the other young man away from the herd and give Rosalind and Angus time alone. Instead, she says nothing and waits—and soon the young man is “taking her arm and drawing her a few paces away from the rest of the party. She allowed herself to be led away.” What a good friend you are, Paula.

If she’s not remaining passive and quiet, she’s telling a lie. When the two finally clear the air—a conversation initiated by Rosalind to break the news of her engagement—Rosalind says, “I thought Angus was in love with you.” “So did I for a while, Paula thought. She smiled at Rosalind and said, ‘What a ridiculous idea!’ ” Maybe it’s not the worst lie ever, but it does demonstrate her inability to be forthright.

And she’s not going to learn anything from her mistakes, either; her failure to communicate, much less act, continues right through the final reconciliation with Christopher. After settling things with Rosalind, “Paula yawned widely and lay back on the pillows. She supposed she might as well get some sleep if possible, and she was tired of thinking and wondering about Christopher. It’s up to him now, Paula thought, and closed her eyes.” You can’t get much more passive than when you’re asleep, I guess. When she wakes up, she dresses too nicely for a lone stroll on the beach, so you know someone’s coming, and lo and behold, there he is. He tries to tell her that he’s skittish because his first wife ran out on him and died in a plane crash a week later, and she says, “Please, Chris, I—do understand, really. Don’t—say any more.” You can’t reconcile if you’re not saying anything. But he persists, the dumb oaf, and soon “she would marry him and go with him wherever he went.” She should have stayed asleep.

The only interesting thing about this book is the Australian addiction to tea; on several occasions, almost immediately after giving birth, new mothers are medicated with a hot cuppa. “Don’t you want to hold her?” Paula asks Mrs. Aust. “Well, just for a minute, but I could do with a cup o’ tea now. Should be still hot, shouldn’t it? Shame to waste it,” replies mum. Well, in her defense, it’s her fourth, so it’s little wonder she prefers the tea. The writing is as blah as our heroine, and I realized in the second chapter that this book was not going to be a winner. I did want to like it, based entirely upon the font of the title on the cover. But few books irritate me as much as this one did.

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