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.

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