Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Courtship of Nurse Genie Hayes

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire
To Genie Hayes sent to nurse its crippled owner, the tiny island called Raiford Cay looked like paradise. But the enchanted spot had its share of serpents. Janice Burton, Henry Raiford’s lovely ward, was consumed with jealousy of the new nurse. And the patient himself was a source of worry and confusion. What was the mysterious ailment that confined him to a wheelchair? And why did he refuse to see his wife and son? Genie discovered that the unhappy family on Raiford Cay needed her understanding and tenderness as a woman even more than her skill as a nurse—and she gave both freely!
“People who scarcely glanced at a girl in street clothes would pause and give her a startled, admiring glance once she was clothed in her crisp white. And that, Genie told herself firmly, was only fair, considering the way a girl had to work before she was given the privilege of donning that uniform!”
“The poor men go around believing that it is they who do the chasing—when any girl knows that if she really wants a man, she has to run him down and brand him.”
“Marriage and a home and children—that’s the most important thing in life for a woman.”
When our heroine, Nurse Eugenie Hayes, arrives on Raiford Cay to care for dying paralyzed Henry Raiford, the island’s only other white girl greets her by saying, “There’s one good thing. At least you’re not pretty, are you?” Janice Burton, you see, has her eye on Henry Raiford’s son and heir Scott—either him or the boat captain Aleck Rogers, she hasn’t quite made up her mind yet. “And until I make up my mind, you’re to let them both strictly alone. Is that clear?” she tells Genie. Well, maybe not; soon Aleck is kissing Genie in the garden, and “it did something crazy to her heart, ordinarily a very well-behaved organ that minded its own business, and rarely indulged in acrobatics.” Though she’s convinced that Aleck is just toying with her, “she knew, much as she wanted to deny it, that she would be perfectly happy spending her life anywhere at all, as long as she was with Aleck! She had to face the fact that she was already in love with him!” And since Janice seems to pay little mind to Aleck, and is constantly seen on Scott’s arm, her declared interest in Aleck comes across as not exactly sincere, and we imagine that apart from territorial jealousy, she wouldn’t seem too upset to lose Aleck. So from the book’s outset we have everyone pretty nicely paired up.
When she’s not mooning over Aleck, Genie is trying to care for the curmudgeon Henry, who doesn’t seem to be dying at all and wants little to do with Genie. Instead, he spends all his time with his Asian manservant, Mike, who glares at Genie when he’s not playing chess with Henry. The only other person he talks to is Janice, his wife’s god-daughter, who runs the house. Henry hasn’t allowed his wife Mimi or son to see him in over a year, and Genie soon decides that Henry is “willing himself to die!” But why? He refuses to talk about it, and his family has no idea why—though it seems clear that Janice knows, and is working as hard to keep the secret as Mike and Henry.
Soon, though, the truth is outed to Genie in an offhanded way when the blanket Henry keeps in his lap gets caught in his wheelchair and is pulled away to reveal that he is a double amputee, a state so frightening that no one could ever love him if they knew. Later in the garden, Genie tracks down Janice, who spits up the whole story: Henry’s legs had been crushed in a boating accident, and he’s so convinced that Mimi and Scott will shriek in horror when they see him that he has vowed never to let them find out, the miserable dope. We get the entire family history in three paragraphs, how Henry signed over his business holdings to Scott and grew the hedges tall enough that he could go out on the balcony without being seen and had his rooms converted to a self-sustained suite so he would never have to leave them. I can’t stand this sort of sloppy story-telling, when we are brusquely told the back story—and not even by the principal actors—because the author can’t be bothered to figure out a less lazy way to deliver it to us.
Though Genie senses from the “genuine emotion” in Janice’s voice that she feels “a genuine love for Henry,” Janice insists that Genie keep the secret, saying, “It makes me sick to my stomach to look at him and know about those hideous stumps.” Genie, however, feels that Janice has an ulterior motive: “There’s just one thing that isn’t clear, Janice. That’s why you want things left as they are,” she says. But Genie has sworn to Henry that she will keep the secret, so she does—and then we have another offhanded reveal, when Henry has a heart attack and everyone just rushes in with the doctor and sees his stumps, and guess what? They don’t despise him, after all! And his heart is going to be just fine, too: “No scientist has ever been able to invent a more powerful medicine than love,” says the island’s doctor. “He’s going to be all right now that the strain of loneliness and heartsickness is over.” Phew!
Curiously, rather than slap her husband across the face for being such an ass, Mimi turns on Janice with the same allegations of double-dealing that Genie had made earlier: “You let him refuse to see us. Why, Janice?” When Janice replies that she did it because it’s what Henry wanted, Mimi answers, “What he wanted, Janice, or what you wanted?” and then stomps off before she can get an answer. “Janice seemed to hold herself somewhat aloof, but the Raifords were too happily absorbed in each other even to be aware of her behavior,” and that’s all the book is going to give us on this matter. But it’s unclear to me what Janice could gain from keeping the family apart: Since Henry has already given Scott the entire estate, he has no money to give her, and it doesn’t seem like he would have interfered with her marrying Scott. So this red herring is left dangling.
Another side plot involves a nefarious gun-runner Del Rivers, who has crashed offshore and is being nursed back to health by Genie and Dr. Caleb, the local medico. Curiously, after the Raifords are reunited, Janice pops up at the clinic, flirting with the outlaw and lying to Scott about it—and again, it’s not clear at all what Janice has to gain from winning over a thug who is being chased by international police, even if he is “the best-looking thing I’ve ever seen! He’s a dream-boat!” Up until now, Janice has been far too self-interested to be sucked in by a pretty face, and I couldn’t figure out why, with a wealthy landowner like Scott practically in the bag, she would risk losing him for a man with so little to give her. I had to chalk it up to more lazy writing.
To make matters even worse, Dr. Caleb then informs us that Henry’s heart attack was a complete fake—that he had decided to let Mimi and Scott back into his life, thanks to Genie’s persistence that he was mistaken about how they would feel about him with two hideous stumps for legs, and felt that this was the best way to go about it. This makes him far and away the most duplicitous rat in the book, even lower than Janice or Del Rivers, who at least are honest about their evil intentions. But Henry’s reputation as a dear, sweet old man is unsullied in Genie’s eyes, and her prior reputation as a gal with sense begins to slip.
Then, for the author’s crowning sin, Genie becomes engaged to a man she has not exchanged two glances with throughout the entire book. Needless to say, this comes totally out of the blue, particularly since throughout the book we have been treated to sentences such as, “Genie firmly ordered her heart to behave itself and stop whimpering Aleck’s name.” So the “courtship” that we have been promised in the book’s title, slim and miserable as it would have been if she had ended up with Aleck, is a total and utter fabrication with her actual betrothed. For the final slap on your way out the door, she turns to him and asks, “May I still be Dr. Caleb’s assistant?” as the old doctor has just hired her as his nurse. He condescends that he “wouldn’t mind” if she works. “You’re going to be a very nice husband. You’re so understanding and willing for me to do what I want to do,” she croons. “I’ll never do anything or go anywhere that you don’t want me to go.” And with that, my total disenchantment with Nurse Genie Hayes was complete.

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