Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
Lady doctor—young girl in love—each describes a different kind of woman. Yet each applied to lovely, dark-haired Dr. Billie Whitcomb, who fell in love with a handsome neighbor with an adorable son and a wife who was strangely missing. Billie suddenly must face a girl’s most agonizing decision: What kind of woman was she going to be?
“The fact you’re an attractive female in no manner detracts from your capabilities.”
“Most men like to beat women at games, not because of a lack of chivalry, but because, as Red claimed, women had come to equal men on so many planes that about all there was left for men to excel in was such trivial competition. Red insisted that women now ruled the universe.”
Dr. Billie Whitcomb is a general practitioner in Tennessee, working alongside Dr. Stuart “Red” Foster. She spends a lot of time with Red, letting him drive her home every night and buy her coffee, though for her it seems to be more of a relationship of convenience rather than true affection. But he admires her as a doctor as well as a person, telling her, “You’re a big girl now—with the right to make your own decisions in your personal life, as well as your professional one.” And she respects him as well: “Red could always make her feel better. It was more than kindness; it was the ability to see the other person’s side of a question, to know how the other person felt, what made him act as he did, even when wrong. And this quality was what would make Dr. Stuart Foster not just an ordinary doctor, but a truly great one someday.”
At the same time, though, he’s always telling her that she has a tendency to follow her heart more than her head—which he bases solely on the fact that she has two X chromosomes—and that this limits her in her profession. “You’ve got to harden that feminine heart of yours in order to get ahead in a man’s field,” he says, and then paradoxically adds, “You should be back in the children’s ward because you are a woman, with a woman’s compassion and love for children.” Also, their dating seems to be curiously contingent entirely on his ability to pay for everything, despite the fact that she is obviously earning a decent salary. “You know that Red can’t afford to take me out often, certainly not for dinner,” she tells her mother, who “hopes that her daughter might do better than to struggle along with a young doctor until he became established.” Does her income count for nothing?
It’s not just with her boyfriend that she is subject—surprise, surprise—to stereotypes. She works with an elderly doctor, Dr. Barnes, whom nobody really likes. He expects her to consult with him before administering any treatment or diagnosis, which she resists—she feels she’s supposed to be working with him, not under him. So she thinks nothing of it when she gives old Mr. Brenner, who is not expected to live after a third heart attack, an injection to help him sleep. The next day she finds he has died overnight, and Dr. Barnes is calling her before the board and accusing her of a mercy killing. She is quickly exonerated by the board, but not content with these back-door dealings, she stops Dr. Barnes in the hallway and defends her need to make autonomous decisions about patients. She adds that she finds it a privilege to work with the experienced physician but she will not be his lackey, and if he cannot work with her as a partner, he should replace her with another doctor. To her surprise, he says he would like to continue with her. “I want you to rely upon your own judgment. Only by doing that can any doctor become a good one. And I guess being a woman has little to do with that,” he graciously allows. “I’ll try to remember that there are some things to be said on the side of youth—and I don’t hold it against you for being a woman.” From this moment on, Billie is Old Barnsides’ number-one fan.
Back at home, single man Grant Shelton and his young son Jerry move in next door. Grant’s wife, Cynthia, has abandoned the family after Grant told her she would no longer be allowed to spend any time on her profession as a violinist. (Why is it always music that these wives leave their families for?) “Cynthia got it into her head that she wanted to resume her career,” Grant tells her with disgust. Billie tells him of a friend who was a brilliant pianist who gave it up after the children came, only to find that “it was like having lost a right arm—a loss that, in spite of compensations, never could completely heal.” Grant cannot even begin to comprehend this, and Billie thinks, “He must be the kind of man who, having won a wife, believed he also had obtained the right to possess her. Not realizing that possessiveness more often destroys than strengthens love.”
Then Red starts getting a little possessive too, pouting for the rest of the night when, on an evening out, Billie has one dance with Grant. “If that guy—any guy—ever takes you away from me, baby, he’ll have to answer to me for it,” he grumps before taking her home early. Grant becomes even creepier, telling Billie, “Don’t ever let me down—destroy that faith again. Remember that, Billie.” Then he gets angry when an old friend of Cynthia’s suggests trying to track her down, and furious that Billie took a short cut through his back yard and discovered that he’d completely dug up the old rose garden back there, when those roses had been the absolute pride of the house’s previous occupants. He even has Billie wear Cynthia’s old head scarf on a drive in his convertible, which she dons with little thought, a common affliction with her.
Naturally, she is immediately attracted to Grant, far more than she’d ever been for Red. She decides that love “should be something to set one on fire. She had not thought of it that way until the discovery that just the touch of a man’s hands could start the blood coursing madly through her veins.” Poor Red suffers by comparison, in the death by a thousand cuts: “Had she picked it out, he wouldn’t have worn the rather loud striped tie, and she couldn’t help contrasting his taste in ties with her next-door neighbor’s.” Red “wasn’t too expert a dance partner,” unlike Grant, who “was so much better that there was no comparison.” When Grant drives, “there were no sudden stops or groans or squeaks, as with Red’s car. No dashing around other cars or trying to climb on top of them.” Then Grant proposes marriage to Billie on their first date, in celebration of his recent divorce. He wants an answer next weekend, and he’s going to drive her up to his house in the mountains, where the nearest phone is miles away. She’s really looking forward to it: “The bass should be biting, with spring just around the corner,” she tells Red, all eagerness and no tact.
Before the fateful weekend arrives, Red makes a proposal of his own—he’s been offered a position in a practice in Nashville, and Billie can come with him and become a pediatrician! But Billie counters that Dr. Barnes, now felled by a stroke, has offered her his very prestigious practice, and Red has to allow that Billie would be better off taking over Dr. Barnes’ practice. “Red had to be honest. This might blight all his hopes, but Billie had to make her own decision regarding her future work. The most important thing was for Billie to be happy. Dr. Foster loved this young lady doctor—all the way.” If only Billie returned the sentiment: “Again, she wished that she could have fallen in love with this nice redheaded doctor.”
Up at Grant’s cabin on that fateful day, Billie has cooked dinner and cleaned up afterward—“that’s a woman’s job,” she says, and he helpfully answers, “then get a hustle on with those dishes”—and she is sitting down before the fireplace when she notices a bit of gold glinting in the ashes, and now we are just waiting, not totally without anticipation, for dumb Billie to turn down Grant and for him to choke the life out of her and bury her alongside Cynthia in the rose garden back home. When she tells Grant she cannot marry him, he gets all frosty: “You gave me your word you would never let me down, remember?” He picks the gold from the fire, and it’s a heart-shaped locket, and then the penny drops and Billie wonders, “Why, he might have hurt Cynthia … Grant might even have killed her …” She’s calmly asking him to take her home when he snaps and grabs her wrists. “Are you running away from me, too, Billie? Just like Cynthia …” Cue the door bursting open and Red barging into the room—
Though in the aftermath the obvious occurs—Billie “discovered that love did not have to make your heart do flip-flops. Love could be a steady flame,” and this is what she has apparently felt, totally oblivious, for Red all along—there’s a little surprise too, which I won’t spoil. Red is a cut above the usual boyfriend in his truly selfless affection for Billie, but he’s not a consistent character, taking her for granted or playing the possessive master, which makes me wonder if he’s supposed to be flawed or if the writer just wasn’t paying a lot of attention. Billie shows surprising and admirable guts when she stands up to Dr. Barnes, and she is clearly rewarded when she gains the old doctor’s trust and practice. But she becomes overly enthralled with Grant despite clear signs of physical and emotional danger and has to be rescued at the end by Red, so again, I can’t decide if this is meant to indicate complexity of character or just poor writing. In the end, the mixed messages without a clear map from the author degrade what could have been a better—but not a great—book.