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.

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