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 fiancé 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment