Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cruise Nurse

By Joan Sargent
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1960
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire
Sheila Dorrance was young and lovely, and determined to make the most of her God-given assets. With memories of her impoverished youth always in back of her mind, she set out to use her nurse’s training as a passport to wealth and luxury. And the job as ship’s nurse on the pleasure liner Southwind certainly provided ample opportunity. There were any number of wealthy playboys aboard, and more than one of them was interested in wining and dining—and maybe even marrying—the pretty young nurse. But in spite of her longing for luxury, Sheila found herself falling for the Southwind’s dedicated young medical officer. And she knew that before her job as cruise nurse was over, she would have to decide whether her destiny was to be ruled by her head … or her heart!
“You couldn’t be sure how an intern might turn out; he might be one of those who could think only of serving humanity and would never bother to collect a bill.”
“You never can tell young people anything. They always know everything.”
“After we’re back home, I want your job to be me.”
Our heroine, 21-year-old Sheila Dorrance, is admittedly shallow: She decided to be a nurse so she could “meet a doctor or a prosperous patient, marry him, and never again have to worry about being poor.” She is quite candid with her aspirations with Dr. Peter Stowe, the young doctor on board the cruise ship where she is working; he turns out to be one of the noble types who interned at a local charity hospital and so is off her banquet table. But after an initial spat about it, he seems to forgive her, because after all, she’s a very competent nurse.
Sheila soon meets Clay Masters, an apparently wealthy young man with pressed white linen pants. Soon he’s beauing her around the Caribbean ports—she’s on the night shift her first week—and she’s dreaming of sparkly diamond rings. But she is also growing to like—take a guess—the good Dr. Peter, who is a sturdy, dependable sort and less inclined toward frivolous parties than Clay. So one evening, when Clay loses his head on a moonlight deck and kisses her a bit too much, Sheila panics and tells him that she isn’t ready to be serious. She soon tells her friend Peter, explaining that though she hasn’t ascertained Clay’s net worth, she hasn’t really thought about it much, only that she has fun with him, and that this isn’t enough to base a marriage on. He laughs, “Sheila Dorrance, you’re a fraud. You’re not honestly looking for a rich man. That’s just the way you talk.”
Soon Sheila is encouraging Clay to take out mousy Elise Ferrier, a browbeaten millionairess whose mother all but chains Elise to the radiator to keep her under her thumb. Mrs. Ferrier has been felled by her appendix and is recuperating ever so slowly in sick bay, leaving Elise to her own devices for the first time in her life, and she likes it!
The book trots along predictably, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s an enjoyable ride. The scenery—Havana, Haiti, Kingstown—is well-drawn, and as the plot progresses we are offered increasing glimpses into people’s characters. Clay, says his sister, enjoys taking Elise out because he can boss her around, and “this one would mean ‘love, honor, and obey’ if she said it.” When Sheila expresses surprise at this characterization, Angela Masters replies, “You didn’t know him very well, did you?” Touché, but to Sheila’s credit, this was one of her own objections to getting too deeply involved with Clay. Though the poor little rich girl does grow a bit of a spine, standing up for herself when her mother tries to insist that Elise stop seeing Clay, she doesn’t make any superhuman recovery. She’s always going to be emotionally fragile, Sheila realizes: “Elise would always need somebody who could make most of her decisions, somebody she thought wise beyond anything human.”  The thought of feeling that way about someone makes Sheila herself snort in disgust, so we are left to feel pleased that Sheila was saved from Clay—who in the end turns out not to be rich, after all, so double phew! And on a tour of the Trinidad countryside, where the children are mostly naked with the swollen bellies of severe protein deficiency, Sheila and Peter’s taxi breaks down, and Sheila spends an afternoon at the hut of a rural woman and her seven children, coming to realize what real poverty is.
This is a fun little book, with a pleasant population, interesting armchair travel, and an occasional dose of humor. The writing is quite good as far as VNRNs go, and the plausible evolution of the characters is a welcome surprise. My only disappointment is that the book backing this Ace double novel, Calling Dr. Merryman, is not another nurse novel, and so is wasted on me. But apart from that, this is a cruise worth taking, and though there seems to be just a pitiful handful, I will look forward to more novels from Joan Sargent.

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