Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Surgeon Neighbour

By Jane Arbor, ©1964

Cover illustration by Bern Smith
When Nurse Sarah Sanstead inherited an old house in the country and decided to turn it into a convalescent home for children, she did not guess the complications which would ensue. Her new neighbour, the surgeon Oliver Mansbury, wanted the house as an extension for his next-door nursing home, and did not hesitate to express his scepticism about Sarah’s plans: “Aren’t you really only waiting to be collected as some man’s wife, the mother of his children?” Sarah was indignant. But little did she realize that a time would come when she would hope against hope that she might become Oliver Mansbury’s wife and the mother of his children.
“Not that you don’t look just as sweet in your starch. But I’ll say you can blossom when you like.”
“So many children are spoonfed on TV that the ones who really prefer to get things from books appear as freaks of nature.”
“A man loves a woman quite differently from the way she loves him, everyone knows.”
“Mother of his children”? Maybe this phrase off the back cover blurb above is meant to be a euphemism, but when I see a hot guy, the last thing I think about is babies. Regardless, when Sarah Sanstead inherits an enormous old house in the country, she decides to turn it into a rehab facility for children recovering from illness. The rub is that her neighbors have turned their house into a rehab facility for old folks, and matron Kate of Greystones is fighting with Sarah at every turn about it, because she had hoped to buy Sarah’s house and expand her own facility. And those screaming kids make such a racket!
The matron’s nephew, Oliver Mansbury, is (guess) a surgeon in the employ of Greystones; though you’d think an internist might have been a better choice, you just can’t get good help these days. Oliver is initially opposed to Sarah’s plans, and has a talk with her early on when she refuses his offers to buy her out. He wants to know if she is really committed to her facility, or is her devotion “the kind a lot of women parade as a virtue, when they’re really only waiting to be collected as some man’s wife”? She is shocked—shocked!—by the question, and declares that she is utterly sincere. “My job is the one thing I want to do,” she says—but adds, “when I marry I should want that to be the one thing I must do.” So how will she manage, he wants to know, when her true love comes along? “When there’s just one thing that you know matters most to you, everything else takes second place,” she answers naively. He is skeptical, and dubious of her facility, but in a few more pages, the place is up and running smoothly, and Oliver is easily won over by the young lady’s hard work and dedication.
So now it’s the daily ups and downs of a house full of children, men to go out with even though they’re really just good friends and not boyfriends, and minor skirmishes with Matron Kate and, also, Jurice Grey, a wealthy and shallow young woman who is hoping to become engaged to Oliver, in part by kneecapping the competition she sees over the fence. And Sarah’s own growing affection for Oliver, but if “the leap of her heart at sight [of] him was too disturbingly familiar,” she is wholly unable to see that she is falling for him. I am always irritated by this particular contrivance of the VNRN, as it just makes our heroine seem stupid. The penny always drops eventually; “she loved the man,” Sarah finally realizes in the penultimate chapter, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one else. But “the realization shook her to the core.” Ugh.
Without much fuss, Sarah and Oliver eventually find their way to each other. But now rears its head the question of which is more important to Sarah, her work or her man. “If I insist that marriage to me will be a full time job,” Oliver says, will she agree to close down? Yes, she will, “without question”—but not to worry, folks, he was just joking! “I was testing your wifely compliance,” he explains, ha ha, and isn’t it big of him to let her keep her business after all? Only, though, if she agrees to expand into something much larger, an idea she has resisted mightily throughout the book. “ ‘Now you are beginning to manage me too!’ she accused him happily,” because nothing makes a lady more pleased than to be bossed around by her boyfriend. “Who with a better right?” he answers, and all there is for them to kiss and live happily ever after, or at least until Sarah recovers the staunch independence of spirit that has made her facility a success up to this point.
This book is pleasant, but not much more than that. The characters are not especially exciting, with the sole exception of bad girl Jurice; her battles with Sarah are the only spice the story has to offer, even if they, too, are as predictable as the rest of the book. It’s a vanilla pudding—easy, smooth, and nice enough, but maybe not the first thing you’d reach for, if there’s molten chocolate cake to be had. There’s not always, I’ll grant you, so it will do in a pinch, but it’s nonetheless best left at the back of the cupboard for a day when it’s otherwise bare.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nurse from the Shadows

By Arlene Hale, ©1975

Nurse Adena York had been in love with Dr. Dave Bradfield for a long time. But every time the subject of marriage came up, Dave found some excuse to put it off. Adena became alternately depressed and exasperated. Why couldn’t Dave see that they were really meant for each other? Why? A new doctor had joined the hospital staff. He was quite a bit younger than Dave. But Adena, tired of what she regarded as the runaround from Dave, found it easy to accept the newcomer’s date-offers. But one day a bombshell erupted—and it seemed as if Dave, her dearest, most wonderful Dave, was caught right in the middle of it. It was then, while Dave fought to save a life, that the dark shadows fell away from between them … at long last.


“ ‘You certainly know how to please a man, Adena,’ Doctor Dave Bradfield said. ‘I always thought nurses made terrible housewives. Yet, you have this very nice apartment and you can cook like a dream.’ ”

“Most women frighten me unless they’re anesthetized and under my scalpel in the O.R.”

“I take my belt to all lovely women.”

“Go home and fix your warrior a nice supper—nothing rich or heavy.”

Adena York is unique among VNRN nurses in that she is in her 30s. Her boyfriend, Dr. Dave Bradfield, is in his 50s, though, so there’s still that classic 10- to 15-year age gap that always baffles me—the inherent inequality of a relationship in which the man is almost old enough to be your father is absolutely not appealing to me. Adena has been dating Dave for five years now, and he still hasn’t come up with a ring. He had been married early in life to a woman who’d walked out on him, and this seems to make him gun-shy. Adena, naturally, is beginning to lose patience.

Then Dave interviews surgeon Scott Lockwood to work at the clinic he heads up. Scott is a brilliant doctor at 26, and he works with Dave in the OR like he’s Dave’s left hand. But Dave is uneasy: “He couldn’t shake the feeling that something didn’t ring true about Scott.” He hires him anyway, and soon he’s starting to wonder if Scott is scheming to unseat him in his position as clinic chief. Then the son of his best friend is brought in after a car accident and requires urgent surgery. Scott is off, not even on call, but Dave is unreasonably furious at Scott for not being available to do the surgery, and insists that even on his days off, Scott should be calling in every hour. Scott is not convinced, and the two now become overt enemies.

Meanwhile, Adena dumps Dave and starts dating Scott. Scott is also dating the daughter of the clinic’s owner, and Dave believes that both relationships are meant to unsettle him, one emotionally and the other from his job. Then a malpractice lawsuit comes up, involving Dave’s handling of a patient we have only met in passing, and this lawsuit is threatening to destroy Dave’s career and bring down the clinic at the same time. These days, when doctors expect to be sued regularly, this crisis seemed overblown, but maybe the torts were different in those times. Dave is indeed asked to step down from his job, and as he’s hanging up the phone from hearing this news, it rings again—it’s his ex-wife, in town and dying of emphysema, and now the secret comes out that Scott is actually Dave’s son! Which the savvy reader began suspecting 50 pages ago!! Dave responds by getting into a boat and drifting around the local fishing hole for an entire day, moping. “All his life he had wanted a son, needed a son and when he had found him, he was betrayed by him!” Poor Dave!

But he needn’t worry, since there are only six more pages left, so everything is quickly set to rights: Dave and Scott kiss and make up, the clinic owner’s daughter marries to an Englishman, the malpractice suit is dropped, Scott decides he really wants to date his secretary, and even Adena gets her man in the end. The fact that she’s been kissing Dave’s son is not addressed, so it’s just left to the reader to imagine the awkwardness at Thanksgiving.

This book is a complete dud. In the first place, the title turned out to be too true—the nurse is left completely in the background in this book, as it is told entirely from Dave’s point of view, so it doesn’t actually qualify as a nurse novel. Secondly, even if nurse Adena York had been the star of the book, its plotline—how the young lady lands the reluctant longtime beau—is my least favorite: There’s no surprise and no real choice for the heroine, as she’s already made it when the book opens. Then the “drama” of Scott turning out to be Dave’s son is so not; I had suspected this all along. But even if I hadn’t figured that out, I just didn’t care what happened to Dave or Scott or even Adena. They’re all vapid, empty characters with not a thing to recommend them. I don’t expect anything much from Arlene Hale, who despite her prodigious output is mediocre at best, but the interesting title and cover illustration did give me some hope. Fooled again.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Five Nurses

By Rose Williams
(pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1964
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

Five beautiful nurses … They had been close friends in nursing school and now they had gathered for their fifth reunion … There was –
Louise: the class belle, now desperately ill
Linda: who had married for money and lived to regret it
Harriet: who shut out love for her career
Janice: unbalanced by the deaths of husband and child
Shirley: with her heart torn between a film tycoon and a devil-may-care reporter…
A dramatic story of the highly eventful lives of five lovely young nurses.


“Sometimes she felt that girls with plain faces had all the best of it.”

“Every day I look around and see more mixed-up people. We haven’t enough psychiatrists to cope with them. We’re living in mentally sick times, Miss Jensen.”

“If she’d only do more with herself. She’s always looked older than she should because she’s so careless with clothes and make-up. Has she improved any?”

“You girls are all alike. Never want to eat anything.”

“Only in New England can you get French food like this.”

This book may pretend to be a story about five nurses, but in fact it’s the story of one nurse with four nurse friends. Something else that struck me somewhere in the third chapter, as I encountered the phrase “dark girl” seven times in three pages, is that this book is written by Mr. Ross, who has an enduring attachment to that particular descriptor (see Network Nurse and Nurse in Nassau), and whose four other books I have read were not terribly impressive. He has lived up to his reputation with Five Nurses.

Shirley Jensen is leaving Miami, where she has been caring for wealthy Max Kane. He is all better now, and she’s decided to use an upcoming fifth-year reunion of her nursing class as an excuse to move to Boston, the site of her alma mater. Shirley is looking forward to the gathering; “there would be the excitement of planning what she’d wear to the reunion.” She’s also eager to catch up with old friends like Harriet Sanders, who springs to mind when she’s wishing she were ugly so she wouldn’t have to fend off Max’s advances. She then thinks of Janice Kent, “her best girlfriend,” whom she hasn’t spoken to in two years—“the last Shirley had heard, Janice had been in a dreadful car accident in which her husband and baby had been killed.” Shirley is, in a word, shallow.

Back in Boston, she takes a room with her former classmate Louise Shannon and her husband, Bob. “The first thought that came to Shirley as she looked up into the face of the dark girl was that Louise had failed terribly,” as she’s looking pale and tired. It turns out that Louise has leukemia, a fact she has told no one, including her husband Bob; Shirley only finds out when she runs into the absurdly unprofessional doctor treating Louise. He adds, “I’ve managed to keep it quiet,” though I’m not sure how, if he’s telling the fatal secret to a woman he hasn’t seen in five years within 60 seconds of her walking through his office door.

Next Shirley visits her old friend Linda, who promptly dropped nursing after graduating to marry, and now has a two-year-old daughter, Ann. She also takes up where she left off with Jerry Wade, a former reporter for the Boston Globe who quit the paper to write a novel that never materialized. Even Max turns up, in town for a business meeting, and she has dinner with him; “in spite of the gray at his temples, he looked quite handsome.” Perhaps it’s the gray that causes her to turn him down when he proposes after dinner at Locke-Ober and a performance by Robert Goulet, who “did a wonderful show that made Shirley forget her problems for a time,” namely that “Louise is slowly succumbing to an incurable disease and Janice is deep in a world of madness.” Yes, Shirley’s problems are heavy, indeed. Or maybe she’s really worried about the fact that she’d spent nearly two hours in a Brookline shopping center searching for a suitable party dress and found nothing in her size that seemed just right.

She shouldn’t have fretted, however, for the very next day at Filene’s better dress department, she quickly finds exactly what she’s looking for. And on her way out, she runs into Janice and has fairly normal lunch with her, though “she is still a bit odd.” Janice gets up to phone home, saying she was expected some time ago, and never returns to the table. Then “it came to her with striking abruptness that the frail girl had acted much too sanely in the last several minutes of their conversation. It should have been a warning to Shirley, who’d had experience in handling psychopathics.” Apparently acting normal is the classic sign of mental illness.

Then we hear that Janice has kidnapped Linda’s daughter. As the last person to see Janice, Shirley is brought to Linda’s house, where she is interviewed by the police inspector, who says supportive things like, “It’s not easy to deal with a madwoman,” and notes that Janice, while institutionalized, had attacked and severely wounded a hospital attendant. After a long pause, the dolt “seemed to realize that he had presented a frightening picture of their youngster’s plight to Linda and Frank,” but nonetheless feels compelled to add, “If we panic this poor demented creature, she could do some wild thing without considering the child’s welfare.” He should get Shirley’s phone number.

Jerry is by Shirley’s side through the whole ordeal, and even reaches out to his old contacts to help with the search. Dropping by his office to let Jerry’s boss Ruth know why he hasn’t been at work, “Shirley noted the attractive green outfit Ruth was wearing and suddenly felt dowdy. She had dressed hurriedly in a plain skirt and blouse, knowing that she would be wearing her raincoat and being more concerned with getting to Linda than with dressing in style.” Now she’s feeling the grave error of her careless ways but doesn’t have too much time to dwell on her gaffe, as they get a call from Harriet. In her work as a visiting nurse, Harriet has spotted Janice in an old Fenway tenement building, and Shirley and Jerry rush to the scene. Shirley is ushered up to the roof, where Janice is poised on the edge with Ann, and Shirley manages to talk Janice away from the brink. Once safely in Shirley’s arms, Janice lapses into a coma and is taken to the hospital, where they presumably will not be discharging her in time for the reunion, darn it!

Now that all the excitement is over, Jerry decides he’s going to quit working for Ruth—a job he hates—and go back to the Globe. “But won’t that be accepting defeat?” asks Shirley helpfully, apparently under the impression that after five years of floundering to write a novel, continuing to fail to produce one is better than returning to a career he had enjoyed. She adds that he shouldn’t count too much on her being a part of his new life, because “you’re one of those people who continually go around with their head in the clouds.” The Jerry we’ve seen up to now has been dependable, generous, and hard-working, so where this picture of a shiftless dreamer comes from is beyond me—but curiously, Jerry instantly becomes that person by “sulking.” The phone rings, and it’s Max. Shirley, displaying new depths of cruelty, has Jerry drive her to a late-night date with him—after she’s fixed her hair and changed into something fit to be seen. Max tells her he’s leaving for Florida tomorrow and again proposes. She again declines, but kisses him and whispers, “Come back to Boston, Max.” Is she just a ruthless tease, or is she changing her mind about Max?

The next morning, as Louise sleeps in, Shirley takes it upon herself to spill Louise’s secret and tells Bob that Louise has leukemia. But Louise and Bob have such a great marriage that Bob never tells Louise that he knows that she’s dying and instead starts cooking breakfast, which is sure to be a big help to Louise! Then it’s off to the department stores to find poor, plain Harriet a decent dress to wear to the reunion—though Shirley has to note that Harriet is still “looking a bit less glamorous” than Linda—and to get Louise into a red dress that “will help give you some color,” our compassionate stylist Shirley observes, and it’s off to the reunion! “During a lull in the proceedings, Shirley noticed that it was after seven-thirty and wondered if Max had started on his flight to California. For a moment she felt a certain sadness. Then she gave her attention to the speaker again.” So maybe she’s not in love with Max after all. But with shallow Shirley, who really knows? When they leave the reunion for the after-party in Wakefield, “Shirley thought they all looked beautiful and glamorous and still satisfyingly young. They were on their way to a party with the men they loved.” And that, oddly, is where the book ends.

I am not certain if this book actually counts as a nurse romance novel. Shirley has no fiancĂ© at the end, but it’s suggested that she “loved” Jerry. She’s turned down his proposal—and Max’s as well—but are we now supposed to think that she’ll marry him after all? It is a welcome change to find a book without the usual climactic clinch, but I was more confused by the ending than anything else. And again and again, I was quite disgusted with Shirley’s preoccupation with her clothes and other people’s appearances. The way she waffles between Max and Jerry, accepting their advances but rebuffing their proposals, feeling “a certain sadness” and then promptly putting them out of her mind, shows something less than honorable intentions. She is not a respectable person, and her “heroism” in saving Janice from tossing herself and Ann off a building is more like happenstance than any real calling to help. The fact that this male writer created such a shallow heroine feels insulting, like he thought we chicks would really dig Shirley’s obsession with her wardrobe and utter lack of sincerity with her boyfriends, her girlfriends, or even her career. Shirley is not someone we will appreciate, and I also don’t appreciate the idea that the writer thinks we should.