Saturday, December 8, 2012

His Wife the Doctor

By Joseph McCord, ©1949
Cover illustration by D. Rickard

Serenity Dale, M.D., was firmly established in the city as a Doctor, with an enviable reputation for her skill and hard work. Married to Maury Parrish, a thus far unsuccessful novelist, Serenity was trying hard to prove her theory that marriage and medicine could be happily and profitably combined. All might have gone well had she not accepted, against her own wishes, a position as head of a private hospital, for it was then that her difficulties really began. Before she realized what was happening, Maury was seeking inspiration elsewhere, and she became involved in professional troubles of her own. Fortunately Serenity was a skillful enough doctor and a good enough wife to make her own prescription work, after she was shocked into a realization of the problem with which she was confronted.


“The older I grow the less certain I am just what makes for a successful life.”
“The woman in her transcended the physician momentarily, as Serenity thought to herself, ‘She does something to that hair.’ ”

Dr. Serenity Dale is saddled not just with an unfortunate first name but also a lollygagging, worthless cad of a husband in Maury Parrish. He wants to be a writer, if he could only ever sit down and put pen to paper, but he’s too busy lounging around the house and drinking cocktails. Oh, and worrying that his wife is more successful than he is. “I’m proud of you of course, but I don’t care to be known as Mr. Serenity Parrish,” he tells her in the book’s opening scene, when he has dropped by her office. “I prefer to make good on my own. You don’t suppose I enjoy sponging typewriter ribbons from my wife, do you?” It looks to me like he has little compunction on that score, but that’s just me.
Serenity and Maury are living in the city with Serenity’s uncle, bachelor Dr. John McDonald, who is quite wealthy and keeps a valet as well as a driver for his cars. Serenity has also moved into Dr. McDonald’s practice as his right hand, but soon Serenity is appointed superintendent of the Frances Starr Hospital. Maury, for his part, has published a tepid romance and is now allegedly working on another. He never discusses his writing with Serenity or lets her read his works in progress, nor does he ever ask her about her work. Serenity wonders if Maury is really writing at all, as “when Serenity came home at the end of her day his typewriter frequently was covered and there was no sign of the scattered sheets and crumpled wads of paper that invariably marked his labors and which he never bothered to pick up,” the selfish boor. “Indifference,” she calls it, ascribing to the fact that he was “always accustomed to living on his father’s bounty.” Now he’s living on her bounty: She has no idea how much he’s earning in royalties on his one slim volume, and so tucks a roll of bills into the sugar bowl every week as a roundabout way of keeping him in pocket change.
One day, Serenity comes home to find a “surprise”—Maury is actually writing! To her “added amazement,” he even attempts to throw his unwanted pages in the trash can!! What’s come over the man? Why, Del Patterson, a childhood girlfriend and successful writer—more successful than Maury, not that it would take much—who has recently moved back to town, “And did she bowl me over!” the tactless man tells his wife. “She’s different. Modern as television. Tall and blond! This afternoon she had on a clinging black dress and I mean it had something to cling to. She touched it all off with a long amber cigarette holder, moved about sort of—slinky.” Even worse, he’s talked over his writing with her, and “she could give me some good ideas.” Soon he is dropping in on Del regularly, and becoming “detached and almost moody” at home. Serenity is busier now at the hospital, but he doesn’t seem to miss her. “Some intangible barrier seemed to be rising between them. […] She had to ignore it. If she ever were to lose her sense of dignity, all would be lost.” Because it’s worse to lose your dignity than your husband, apparently. Though in this case that would be true.
He gets a new car, and the first place he gets to is Del’s apartment, where he kisses her. Then Maury’s father, a small-town doctor, dies, and he goes home to deal with it—taking Del, and leaving Serenity at home. When Serenity follows along a few days later to attend the funeral, all Maury can talk of is the fact that he’s not getting a lot of money from the estate. “Maury didn’t realize where much of his father’s substance must have gone. College and two years abroad. Those things took money and doctor’s fees were none too easy to collect,” Serenity thinks, sharing none of this. She’s horrified by his “repugnant” attitude, particularly since he demonstrates no grief at all at his father’s death, but she attempts to paper it over with the idea that “since their marriage he had been almost entirely dependent upon her earnings. Had it harassed and mortified him even more than she had suspected?” I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse, but it’s what Serenity tells herself to stay invested in her marriage.
Back at work, the hospital’s benefactress checks into her own hospital with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal illness of creeping paralysis that eventually stills the muscles needed to eat and breathe. Ms. Starr’s doctor has prescribed a treatment requiring her to move and speak not at all—which is particularly cruel, if you understand that these abilities will soon be stripped from her—but Serenity feels that a new medication could be beneficial. Ms. Starr consults Serenity audibly, defying her doctor’s orders, and when Dr. Latting gets wind of this, he sees it as an unpardonable sin and conspires to have Serenity fired from her job. She comes home completely distraught, but Maury is “gloomy and preoccupied,” and “in no mood to dispense comfort.” He’s upset, he tells Del after he has sneaked out of the house that evening, because he had planned to go away for a bit to “look for atmosphere, see some new plays, meet some interesting people; sort of let me dust myself off, so to speak.” But now “I’ll have to stick around until I find out what [Serenity losing her job] is going to mean. It sure has got me down.” Interestingly, Del seems disgusted by his behavior; “she did not stir from her corner of the couch as she expressed her sympathy,” and when he leaves, “she offered him her cheek instead of her lips and then stepped away.”
The next morning, Del calls Serenity to her house to tell her that she’s leaving town. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to Maury,” she tells Serenity. “Don’t, for Heaven’s sake, think I’m trying to pull something noble. I’m not in the least built that way.” She tells Serenity of her conversation with Maury and that she’s running away, for reasons she won’t disclose—but it seems to me that she’s as disgusted with him, as any sensible person should be, and she has the luxury of not being chained to the damned fool the way Serenity is. “He’s been hoping for a break but not willing to buckle down and work for one,” Del concludes. “I wish for his sake that somebody would talk him out of his writing. He’s not the type to serve an apprenticeship and he can’t afford to be a genius.” She does break into tears and whimper Maury’s name after Serenity has left, but I prefer to think that she’s more broken-hearted that Maury has turned out to be such an ass and is weeping for the man he might have been.
The ending is a bit peculiar—though we can bank on Serenity getting her job back, and Serenity and Maury reconciling (they are married, after all, and we can’t have divorce). Maury burns his manuscript and takes a job as an editor, and when he tells Serenity of this, “something like a sob welled in Serenity’s throat but she choked it back resolutely. Maury hadn’t grown up. He hadn’t!” So when they embrace half a page later and all is set to rights between them, I’m just left scratching my head. The man may have a legitimate career ahead of him as an editor, but his whole affair with Del is swept under the rug in a most unhealthy manner, and Serenity herself doesn’t seem too hopeful for his reformation (or is his lack of maturity to be read as a good thing?). I cannot help but feel that Serenity would be far better off without this barnacle, and that he is only going to bring her greater misery in the future. She’s won the battle but lost the war.
We the readers, however, are unequivocal winners with this book. The writing is quite good and entertaining throughout, such as when Del drops by the hospital to see Serenity and tells her, “You’ve got a friend of mine in here. You’ve been taking her apart for some perfectly good reason no doubt.” (It was an appendectomy.) For another example, Dr. McDonald tells Maury of a dinner guest: “Jim and I have fished together for years. In fact, he’s recently returned from a trip so you may expect to have your credulity strained.” If the ending is a bit ambiguous, I don’t really mind that; this book, at least, leaves me with something to think about. The story moves gently along as novels from this era frequently do, and you can close this book gently when it’s over, feeling that time spent with it was not wasted.

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