Cover illustration by Jack Harman
Love and a career, ambition and security, often pull in different directions, and it is not easy for the young to sort out their claims. It was particularly difficult for Nurse Gina Delham, haunted as she was by the thought of her parents’ unhappy marriage. How was she to choose between the different paths set before her?
“Nothing is more infectious than highly strung nerves, you know, and I want you to be a rock to your patients, not a nettle. Let them rest on you, rely upon you—and take good care they never get stung, either by your tongue or your brisk efficiency!”
“She’s a woman. Surely you can’t expect her to view mangled bodies with no more emotion than she would inspect a squashed insect? All women are highly strung, emotional is the word you use, I think.”
“Bless you, Gina. You’ve given me something to look forward to at last. Life has been pretty ghastly all round. But on Wednesday at seven-thirty life will begin again in all its old glory! We’ll have fun, my sweet—I’ll bring the chariot to the hospital gates, and mind you have shoes that fit well, for you won’t be home by midnight, and we don’t want any glass slippers left on the highway!”
Gina Delham is our eponymous nurse working in the English version of the ED, the Casualty Department, which is headed by the aloof Dr. Simon Brayford. She’s been told by the Matron early on that she’s not a career nurse: “Like most girls, if the offer of marriage came along, and was sufficiently tempting, you would have no more hesitation in throwing over this work than a child offered a cream bun would hesitate to throw away a slice of bread and butter.” Gina wants desperately to be serious about her career, but she’s afraid that the Matron is right. Her heart throbs for Simon Brayford, but it’s a lost cause—or so she thinks—because “nurses are, to him, just so much necessary hospital equipment, about as absorbing as a jar of swabs, and not nearly as useful!”
But in spite of her professed admiration for the doctor, she can’t possibly tumble for him because he’s poor and driven and hopelessly devoted to his work, and her parents—you guessed it, killed in a car accident when she was younger—had been driven to hate each other, and the children that bound them together, by the deep poverty they could never escape. So she’s going to marry a rich man, like this here patient, Garrick Peters, who will lift her and her two younger siblings into the good life. Garrick, recovering from a serious car accident and instantly smitten with Gina, seems ready to oblige—a dozen roses with an unsigned card arrive at her door—and Gina is so confident of her future as Mrs. Garrick Peters that she snubs an unprecedented date with Simon. But at his discharge, Garrick is heard telling a woman who turns out to be his fiancée, the duplicitous cad, that he’ll be glad to leave his beautiful blonde nurse behind, saying “The poor kid is making a bit of a nuisance of herself.” Then it’s all over the hospital, her “humiliation, searing, soul-destroying,” that “she had loved him,” she of the frigid, money-grubbing heart.
But on the upside, now she’s free to take up an offer by Simon, who despite her disinterest in him, still wants her to be the chief nurse of the new Casualty Department he’s creating at Barneford Hospital. And she’s still free to continue her paradoxical crush on Simon: “If only the doctor would admit that she had some other use than as a competent ‘mate’ on the job!” she sighs. She seems to vacillate wildly in her points of view, one day wishing madly that Simon would notice her, then insisting tearfully that as God as her witness, she’ll never be hungry again! Mostly, to the reader’s growing boredom, the latter. There are, of course, the usual vague hints that Simon does have feelings for Gina, to which she, as a dense VNRN heroine, is completely oblivious.
Then, while out on an almost-date with Simon—coffee after an ambulance run—they bump into Garrick, who tells Gina that he loved her all along. Yippee! Except that Simon then tells her that he loves her too, and wants her to stay with him. “She must be strong now. […] No foolish heart must be allowed to persuade her to throw aside all her resolutions.” Simon, citing the growing success of Casualty, hires a young nurse he knew years ago, in a past that he never discusses (though she bites Gina’s head off when she says that with hands like his, he surely must have done some surgery at some point). Betty Newent is the most scatterbrained nurse ever, always dropping trays of pills and going to pieces when an accident victim is brought in—not the most logical choice for an ED nurse, but she and Simon are determined to whip her into a successful nurse, with Gina assisting at the lash. Gina, of course, instantly jumps to the conclusion that this is because Simon and Betty are planning to marry, though Betty seems mostly afraid of Simon and he seems mostly worried about her. With this leap of poor logic, Gina realizes that she herself is in love with Simon, and never did love Garrick. But she still can’t go quietly into that good heartbreak: “Simon represented everything against which she had turned herself, years before. He was everything that her husband must never be—a poor man, offering insecurity and constant striving.” It’s maddening, I tell you!
She’s going to soothe her aching heart with a heavy work schedule. “It’s the only way to forget things that have to be forgotten,” a maxim that she shares with both Simon and Betty, though it’s not clear to Gina why, if Simon and Betty are soon to be united in wedded bliss, they should both be so darned mopey. Then Garrick proposes and Gina accepts, even though they have a frank chat about the fact that she doesn’t love him. Simon makes a proposal of his own, that Gina come with him when he leaves Barneford Hospital to start a clinic back where he comes from. She responds by freaking out, yet again: “I’ve been afraid of poverty because of what it can do to people—and if I can’t have my family with me now, do you think I’d consider, for one moment, a job where I still could not have them with me? I want a real life, with security, and freedom, and fun—” So, curiously, when Garrick insists that Gina quit her job after they are married so she can better attend his frivolous and boring cocktail parties where, “hour after hour, the talk was only of frothy trivialities,” she tells Garrick that she will not give up her work.
That fight is tabled for the time being, as they are en route to see Gina’s younger brother and sister and gladden their hearts with promises of college and riding lessons. But lo, Alan doesn’t want to go to college and has arranged a position for himself at the local garage, and little Jennifer is working at the horse barns in exchange for riding lessons, so they’re all set, thank you very much. Then, as the final straw, Aunt Katie, who has raised the little Delhams, tells Gina that her parents really did love each other madly, and those fights that Gina overheard were just words of the moment: “They fought like cat and dog at times, but it was all good fun,” Katie tells her—ha, ha. It turns out that Katie, who had been in love with Gina’s father, had fostered the idea in Gina’s mind that her parents didn’t love their children or each other as a sort of nasty revenge. Katie has to tell Gina the truth now because Gina is marrying a man she doesn’t love, and Katie wants Gina to have the kind of love her parents had for each other. Curiously, Gina responds to this shocking revelation by flinging herself into Aunt Katie’s arms and having a good cry. I myself would have, at the very least, slapped Katie silly, but I’m funny about that sort of treachery.
So Gina decides she can’t marry Garrick after all. “He offered her fun as another man might offer her eternal devotion, and fun wasn’t enough for her. She wanted so much more from life; she would welcome hard work, idealism, sacrifice—anything which life with a man such as Simon might demand, which life with Simon must demand.” She is so dazed by this realization that she wanders as if senseless through town—which she tends to do after a crisis, such as when she overheard Garrick talking to his then-fiancée—and is run over by a bicyclist. Like any good nurse, she shrugs off the headache that becomes increasingly ferocious over the next few days. When she’s finally felled by the pain and the story of the accident comes out, she’s sent for tests and discovered to have a large clot on her brain, and only the most promising brain surgeon can help her—three guesses as to who this turns out to be!
As she’s lying in the hospital, she learns the truth of Simon’s past: He and Betty were engaged once, but she dumped him for his best friend, and then on their honeymoon the pair were in a car accident, and the groom injured and brought to Simon. But the young man died despite Simon’s best efforts, and Simon was obliged to flee the gossip that followed him, suggesting that he had deliberately allowed the man to die. Now he’s just trying to help Betty get back on her feet and get over her dead husband; the two feel only friendship for each other. Gina, seeing her clot as a golden opportunity for the man she loves, refuses to have anyone else do the surgery. Does she die on the table? Does Simon feel he can resume his brilliant career as a brain surgeon? Does Gina agree to marry Simon in the end? What do you think?
This book is a bit of a mess, with a lot of dead ends. The identity of the man who sent the roses—you can’t help but suspect that it was Simon, not Garrick as Gina assumed—is never revealed. Simon notes in passing that he has two adopted children who are “parked”—his word—with his sister, and whom he has never mentioned or visited in the months that make up the story. He says he loves these children, and loved their parents, who are now deceased, but this is all we ever find out about them. Several times Gina is accused as being overly demanding, and we are treated to a flashback in which her mother tells her, “You are so greedy, my dear—you make more demands on those you love than they can ever hope to meet.” Later on, a minor nurse character also tells Gina, “You demand so much of people that you scare them away from you.” But we have no evidence of this at all; rather, the opposite is true: Gina has a tendency to be so closed up that she suffers from not knowing what she herself wants, let alone making demands of others. So what’s that supposed to be about?
The endless waffling on Gina’s part about whether she should feel hurt that Simon doesn’t love her or pursue Garrick for his money becomes more than a little frustrating. Also, pretty much everyone in the book—Simon, Betty, Gina, Garrick, and even minor characters like the Matron and the hospital librarian—have secret pasts or past secrets that they allude to constantly, and usually tearfully, while refusing to discuss them outright. “Do we have to talk in riddles all the time?” Garrick asks Gina at one point (after she’s learned the truth about her parents’ relationship but is clearly not going to share this with her betrothed, just mawkishly presses their love letters to her cheek). It’s a really excellent question. This book would have been a whole lot shorter than 191 pages if anyone could have just had an honest conversation. And I might have liked it a bit better, and had more respect for Gina. As it happens, the only enjoyable character in the book is Garrick, who regularly drops foppish remarks like, “I’m Garrick Peters, remember? Your very dearest, most precious patient—who fell in love with you when in a state of deep unconsciousness on a marble slab.” But unfortunately, he doesn’t pop up enough to make the book worth the time, and none of the remaining characters are so attractive or interesting that you should spend an afternoon reading about them.