Saturday, September 21, 2013

Luxury Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1956

“You’re sound, Sally, very sound,” Dr. Garry Linton told her. Nurse Sinclair laughed. “Are you talking about a nice big russet apple, or me?” she asked. But she was troubled. He said he loved her, but did he? And now she would be away nursing Lisa Cannon for three long months, Lisa, whose high-strung disposition and self-pity made her as unpleasant to be with as she was lovely to behold. But Sea Island was a magical isle and Sally Sinclair was determined to explore all of the magic of it. It began when she discovered the exquisite miniature village—a Lilliput town—which Allen Blaisdell had built. After that, everything seemed to change, as if Sally had found the key to the secret garden, to Lisa’s recovery, and to her own heart.

“ ‘I have never,’ stated Garry grimly, ‘seen anybody I would so thoroughly enjoy turning over my knee for a session with a slipper in my good right hand. How do you stand her, Sally?’ ”
“Women are the simplest creatures on earth; all they ask is to be loved and considered vastly mysterious, which they aren’t in the smallest degree.”
“If you dare offer me a sedative or a supposedly soothing word, I’ll throw something at you.”
Sally Sinclair is dating Dr. Garry Linton, but is quite clear about the fact that she is the only nurse at the hospital who isn’t in love with him. He’s told her that he wants to marry her—as usual, in a few years when he has established his practice and can support her—but she gives him a cold shower, right there in the second chapter: “I’m not a bit sure that I’m in love with you,” she says. “I like you enormously; I admire you tremendously; but I’m not sure that’s love.” Well, we’ll just see about that, missy.
She’s caring for 18-year-old Lisa Cannon, “the season’s most successful and most popular debutante,” who is in the hospital for the foreseeable future because, according to Nurse Sinclair’s expert diagnosis, “your nerves cracked up from sheer exhaustion.” Lisa’s ready to leave the hospital, but needs nursing for the three months it will take for her to recover from her crackup. So Sally is nominated to go with her, because she’s so good at dispensing helpful advice such as, “You’ll have to pull yourself together and stop that crying, or I’ll have to get Dr. Linton to give you a sedative.” If disdain doesn’t work, a good nurse can always resort to violence; when Lisa insults her father, “Sally barely managed to restrain an impulse to slap the girl hard.” Needless to say, I’m not impressed with Sally’s haughtiness, disrespect, and rudeness to her patient, but in a Peggy Gaddis novel, these qualities add up to a great nurse, since Sally is slightly better behaved than her extremely spoiled patient.
So off Sally and Lisa go to the Cannon cottage on Sea Island, Georgia—a beautiful, upscale beach resort that I happen to know fairly well and that figures very prominently in the book. If you’re familiar with it also, it’s especially fun to go for dinner and dancing at The Cloister, the historic hotel there, even if that worthless cad Thorne Cooper does show up and make eyes at Lisa across the ballroom. He’d accepted $50,000 from Mr. Cannon to stay away from Lisa, but now he strides up to the party and drops a check on the dinner table, the principle from the “loan,” plus $10,000 interest. “I made you no loan,” Mr. Cannon explodes in response. “I bribed you to stay away from my daughter.” But that’s admirable too, in Peggy Gaddis’ eyes, just a good father protecting his child from social parasites.
Now Thorne is dropping by the house, making no bones about the fact that he’s only interested in Lisa’s money. Garry also stops by now and then, but Sally continues to remind him that she doesn’t love him. Then one day while wandering the beach in the morning—Lisa sleeps until noon, of course—Sally comes across a tiny town of miniature houses and buildings and even twee rosebushes that have to be watered with an eyedropper. It’s a business created by local resident and old crush of Lisa’s, Allen Blaisdell (though it’s not clear how they knew each other; he’s ten years older than she is), who has hired veterans disfigured by the war to build these creations. Sally is utterly captivated and speaks so warmly of Allen to Garry that her beau asks her if she’s in love with Allen (she demurs). But when Allen drops by the Cannon cottage, Lisa gloms onto the man to such an extent that Sally is shoved to the sidelines, and even Thorne loses his appeal; she laughs to Sally that she sees Thorne only “because it annoys Dad, of course. Why else?” But the rub here is that Lisa is horrified by the sight of physically handicapped people. “That awful-looking creature!” she shrieks upon seeing one of Allen’s friends and employees, a man in a wheelchair. “I’d die if a thing like that so much as brushed against me.”
Not to worry, though, the power of love will set Lisa on her feet in the end. One day while walking among Allen’s tiny houses, she encounters a rattlesnake, and only the quick intervention of a nearby wheelchair-bound man inexplicably carrying a gun saves her life. She screams and screams and screams! and flings herself into the lap of her rescuer, who pats her hair with his artificial hands and smiles over her with his scarred face, and Lisa refuses to let go. (You might ask yourself, how does a man with no hands fire a gun? Let’s ask wise Nurse Sally: “The marvels of artificial limbs, Lisa, can never be overestimated,” she explains somberly to her equally incredulous patient.) In any event, Lisa is now a convert: When Sally asks Lisa skeptically if she thinks she can accept the deformed man’s invitation to dine with him and his wife, Lisa answers, “I’d almost kneel at his feet. Oh, Sally, what do you think I am?” I, for one, thought she was a nasty brat who didn’t care if she trampled dollhouse rosebushes and who sneered, “I don’t see how Allen can even tolerate those hideous creatures,” but perhaps it was all meant kindly.
Now we only need to cast about for someone for Sally to marry at the last minute—hey, that Dr. Garry might do! When, three pages from the end, Garry asks her if she loves him, suddenly it’s all tears and hot cheeks: “She went into his arms as naturally, as beautifully as a homecoming bird comes into its nest at sunset,” and I flung the book across the room as naturally as an outraged reader slapped with the final straw.
Peggy Gaddis seems to have tossed several of her other books—Nurse in the Shadows, Nurse in the Tropics, Big City Nurse—into a blender and poured out Luxury Nurse. Unfortunately, the result is not a tasty chocolate malt. Sally is a patronizing, righteous tyrant, somehow meant to be admirable; Lisa is cruel, small-minded and selfish, and her complete about-face in the end is entirely unbelievable. It’s hard to believe that we could find a man dumb enough to take one of them, let alone two. My favorite things about this book were its setting on Sea Island and the cover. But I readily acknowledge that unless you have actually been to the Cloister, the first pleasure will most likely be lost on you, so you can save yourself several hours by just enjoying the cover illustration and then setting this annoying amalgamation aside.

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