Monday, September 15, 2014

Call Dr. Margaret

By Ray Dorien, ©1961
Dr. Margaret had faltered only once in her determination to follow her medical career, but her radiant dream of marriage and motherhood had been changed, and her character with it, in a moment of tragic discovery. She imagined that this private past was unknown, that she could go on to her work at St. Antholin’s Hospital, but there she met the one man who had unknowingly stumbled on her secret.
“I do disapprove of you driving on Sunday. Oh, I know you pride yourself on being free and independent, but I’m not so sure that it’s good for girls.”
“If you don’t drive away this instant, I shall eat you. You look so delicious.”
“She did not want to be a woman, longing for love. She wanted to be doctor only.”
Dr. Margaret Addam is a fresh young attending about to start her first job at St. Antholin’s Hospital in London when she makes the serious error of taking a two-week holiday in Brittany. There she encounters suave architect Amyas Burdett, and that really is his name. She tumbles for him, of course, and agrees to meet him back in England. She is, in fact, to see him en route to her new job. Picking him up at a train station, she finds him to be a cooler, more remote individual than the ardent suitor he had been in France. He directs her to a hidden cottage, where the pair has a lovely picnic. After washing up the dishes, he passionately urges her to stay the night with him. She agrees, the scandalous tart, and is about to fetch her suitcase when her necklace breaks, and the beads fly everywhere. Searching the floor, she finds all but one. She ties up the beads and has just stepped out onto the verandah to retrieve her nightie from her car when a young woman is heard letting herself in the front door, conveniently located on the other side of the house away from the driveway, and asking Amyas, “Darling, aren’t you pleased to see your wife?”
Oh, the shame! Margaret climbs into her car and allows it to roll down the steep driveway before starting the engine and peeling out onto the main road, almost running into another car in the process. She pulls over a mile down the road to weep over the “tremendous mistake in the most important happening of her life,” and the man driving the near-miss vehicle stops also, to ask if she is all right. She brushes him off and he leaves her to her ignominy, never to be seen again … until she arrives at St. Antholin’s and finds he is Dr. Jack Fanning, with whom she will be working closely! And he is also the childhood friend of Veronica Burdett, the almost-deceived wife of treacherous Amyas!
Margaret keeps her identity a secret by always wearing her hair up instead of loose around her shoulders as she had that day, which proves surprisingly successful as a disguise, though not as a style; Dr. Fanning chides “the very severe way you do your pretty hair. What do you think you are, ballerina or relic of the fight for women’s rights?” Ouch! She also assumes a brisk and cold personality, having decided that her two-week fling with Amyas is all the love she will ever know, that “one side of her life was closed to her.” It’s a ridiculous position to take, made all the more so by the fact that this is a romance novel and any second-grader will be able to predict what happens over the course of the book. Dr. Fanning isn’t impressed with this demeanor, either, and tells her that it’s just as important to listen to a patient’s stories, rambling though they may be, as it is to listen to their hearts, so the patients will bond with and trust their doctors, and adhere to their treatment plans (as valuable a lesson today as it was when this book was written more than 50 years ago). “If you can’t give something more, you’ll never be any good as a doctor, or maybe as a woman either,” Dr. Fanning tells her, and suggests that she get out more.  Initially furious at his criticism, Margaret nonetheless starts socializing with the other new doctors, even dating Jack Fanning more and more frequently, and becoming a kinder, gentler person and doctor in the process.
In the meantime, Amyas’ wife Veronica has found the bead that Margaret dropped at the love nest and given it to her old friend Jack Fanning, telling him she is concerned that Amyas is unfaithful. And Margaret gives the remaining beads to a young nurse friend, who restrings them and wears them to a concert. Jack soon spies Nurse Jones wearing them, but also learns that Margaret had been in Brittany at the same time as Amyas, and begins to suspect Margaret, “his Margaret,” as he now thinks of her, of an affair. Margaret, meanwhile, coming increasingly to love Jack, is planning to tell him “the innocent, guilty-seeming story, and then she would be free of it forever.” But wouldn’t you know it, Jack learns that Margaret gave the beads to the nurse and immediately severs all ties with Margaret. When he tells her it is over between them, he doesn’t bother to ask her for an explanation, so naturally she declines to give him one, saying instead, “I thought if people loved each other, there could be trust and some understanding.” I’m not crazy about this sort of plot twist, as I find it frustrating and a bit facile, but we’re only 12 pages from the end, so it’s short—and too easy—work for Margaret to go home for Christmas only to return and find Jack humbly apologetic, having had an offstage discussion with Amyas and learned the whole truth.
The entire premise of the book—Margaret’s devastating, potentially career- and romance-ending shame of having not slept with a married man—is more than a little silly from our vantage point a half-century after the book was written.  It would have made for a more interesting story if she actually had slept with Amyas, and given a legitimate motivation for all the hand-wringing we witness, but I should know better than to expect much thought from a VNRN. Apart from that, it’s a pleasant enough book, decently written with sturdy characters. If she suffers overmuch from her horrible “mistake,” Margaret is otherwise a feisty gal with a spine, and a pleasant person to spend 140 pages with.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Masquerade Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1963
Kathy Barrett awoke in a hospital bed … When the lovely nurse opened her eyes she remembered the sickening skid, the crash, and nothing else. How did she get there; where were here friends Jim and Lynne? She struggled to speak, to ask questions of the handsome young doctor who stood at her bedside and who looked so much like Jim Stratton. His eyes were concerned, his voice tender as he spoke. “It’s all right, Lynne,” he said. “You’re going to be all right now, Lynne….” This stirring novel is the story of a nurse who is the sole survivor of an automobile accident, a nurse who borrows the identity of her dead friend to find a new home and escape a threatening past, a nurse who lives a life of painful lies while she falls deeply in love with a dedicated doctor.
“You had to keep remembering the miracles and doing what you could to prolong life, even when your patient begged for release.”
The back-cover blurb of this book—and the similar plot abstract just inside the book’s cover—are a serious detriment to the reader, who would be far better off not knowing what’s coming. Because the setup is a bit complicated and requires almost 50 pages before we can get on with the car crash, I for one tended to rush the earlier reading. But that’s a shame, because it’s a pleasant story of a smart, competent nurse with a few issues. Like many a nurse before her, she comes from an orphanage, but she had her best friend, Lynne Haley, to suffer alongside. The two share an apartment, and it’s Kathy who introduces Lynne to the doctor who would become her fiancé, Jim Stratton. This is one of the aspects of the VNRN that I’ve always enjoyed best, the nurse and her roomie sharing jokes and dinner together, but this doesn’t get as much play as I would have liked in what is actually a too-short nurse novel (and it may well be a first that I have said that here).
Kathy’s troubles begin when, her better judgment obviously still on break, she accepts a date with the unctuous hospital administrator, Ralph Knoll. After a steak dinner that includes too many drinks, Ralph predictably puts the moves on, and Kathy is forced to tell the little troll what she thinks of him. So when a terminally ill cancer patient is discovered to have been relieved of his suffering with an unhealthy dose of Nembutal, Ralph is quick to lead the inquisition, declaring that Kathy—who subbed during the dinner hour for the nurse specialing the patient—is guilty of a mercy killing. Though no one believes her guilty, she is nonetheless suspended until the truth can be learned—and the bereaved widow, who just happens to have been given a script for Nembutal recently, is catatonic with shock and can’t answer any questions. So it’s going to be a long suspension.
To pass the time, Kathy drives to Oregon with Jim and Lynne, who is to meet Jim’s family for the first time. En route is the fatal mishap, and Kathy wakes, groggy and dazed, with this hot doctor holding her hand and calling her Lynne (because she had been passing Lynne’s pocketbook to its rightful owner at the time of the accident, and everyone assumed that the ID inside the bag belonged to the woman clutching it; apparently IDs didn’t have photos in the 1960s). At first too dazed to correct Dr. Dane Stratton, then attracted by the idea of the family Dane wants her to become part of, and also concerned that Dane’s poor mother will suffer another heart attack when she learned that the “daughter” she’s now pinning all her hopes on is actually as dead as her son, Kathy goes along with the misunderstanding. She isn’t totally ignorant of the fact that assuming Lynne’s identity could help her out of the jam she’s in at the hospital, but she spends a lot of time berating herself for perpetuating the charade and not coming clean, planning the moment when she will spill the beans, and then letting the moment pass yet again. It’s the sort of inner dialogue that could come across as stupid or overwrought or unbelievable, but Jane Converse is a fine writer and pulls it off seamlessly.
Kathy obviously can’t return home as Lynne and has been pressed to join the family unit, which includes the charmingly boyish 17-year-old brother Petey as well as Mom and Dale. This assemblage of characters is as attractive to the reader as it is to orphan Kathy, who has always longed for a home. As the weeks pass, the deceit becomes increasingly difficult; posing as the schoolteacher Lynne she is unable to chat about educational reform or explain the flawless tracheotomy she performs on a choking neighborhood boy. After she resigns from Lynne’s job she is forced to cash Lynne’s final paycheck. The fact that this is a felony does not pass lightly, as Kathy now realizes that her deception has crossed legal lines, and she worries about how this crime will impact her ability to retain a nursing license if discovered.
The suitor character in VNRNs is usually drawn fairly loosely—this character is seldom as important as his potential as The Possible Husband in the VNRN—and, true to form, Dale is not among the more detailed men we’ve met. Nonetheless, he is a solid, pleasing character. The lead up, when Kathy is finding Dane increasingly attractive, is well-played, and the electricity she feels when he palpates her shoulder fracture (silly as that sounds), or when “brushing against him accidently while they fixed a midnight snack in the kitchen,” is real. Though Dane eventually succumbs to that very bad habit of VNRN boyfriends, pushing themselves on reluctant heroines with over-the-top declarations of undying love and an alarmingly stalkerish intention of remaining her shadow until she falls for him or at least agrees to marry him, he does so in a very mild and organic way: She’s crying after the tracheotomy, thinking he’s about to tell her he knows she’s a fraud, and instead he, “bewildered and helpless,” tries to console her. He ends up smoothing the tears from her face and saying, “You’re the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us … the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” and “looking at her with a burning intensity, yet an expression so poignantly tender” before he quickly snaps out of it and gives her two sleeping pills and rushes awkwardly from the room. This I found much more cute than creepy, which is how those scenes usually come across.
Anyway, you know it’s just a matter of time before Dane finds out who Kathy really is and freaks out. You can also guess that there will be a terrible accident at the high school gymnasium, where Petey has gone to watch a basketball game between the Chatsville Chargers and the Bayport Bruins (carrying a sign he’s made that reads, “Bruins, Sí! Chargers, No!”) that causes radio announcers to plead for any healthcare workers in hailing distance to come to the gym right away to aid in the relief efforts. And you can guess that Kathy’s heroic efforts there, and her genuine alarm for Petey’s safety, will go a long way toward getting her through this mess, as does a little surprise twist.
I always open a Jane Converse novel hopefully, because I know what she is capable of (see Surf Safari Nurse). While Masquerade Nurse is not her best in terms of exuberant writing or humor, she has assembled here a good plot and characters, and she writes them well enough that you can really believe them and not snicker more than once or twice at their stupidity. If this isn’t her best, there’s enough here to make it absolutely worth reading, and certainly a lot more than you might find in most VNRNs.