Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Doctor’s Wife

By Peggy Dern (pseud. Peggy Gaddis), ©1966
For two years, R.N. Ivy Carter had been engaged to Dr. Gerald Larrimore, a brilliant young surgeon and cardiologist. Despite the fact that Gerry was studying and doing research in a large Northern city, Ivy continued her nursing in a small town in the South while she awaited his return. But when he came back, it was not alone—it was with a new bride, one who seemed bent on corrupting Gerry’s professional integrity. Overcome by shock and heartache, Ivy refused to be comforted by Murray Blake, the intern who had long secretly and hopelessly adored her, or by Gary Whitman, the millionaire playboy who found in Ivy the one woman he had been searching for. Could Ivy work alongside the man she loved day by day and watch him being manipulated and destroyed by a scheming woman? Could she accept the fact that the man was out of her life forever and accept love from another?
“In Oakhaven servants were hard to come by. The new dress factory, about which the county seat town had been little less than ecstatic, had drained off the women and girls who were normally available as maids and cooks. It was a not so funny joke among the more prosperous women that in Oakhaven there was no servant problem, because there were no servants available.”
“I like to feel that, professional house guest though I may be, I’m not quite a gigolo.”
“You want to be the big provider who goes out and slays dragons and pulls them home by the tail to show the little woman, huddling in the cave to which you brought her.”
“My Pop says that people that live uptown don’t fight. Must be kinda dull, don’t you think, Nurse? I kinda like a good fight, with people screaming and folks heaving things at each other.”
“I look like the breaking up of a long, hard winter, and you doctors should surely know it, since you had a lot to do with the way I look.”
“I’ll have fun doing over the house, and then at night when you come home, we’ll be together. And no woman in her right mind could want more out of life!”
It’s a real pity about the cover of this book, because this illustrator’s work makes me cringe in horror, but it’s one of the best Peggy Gaddis novels I’ve read. So unless I can find it in a different edition with a better cover, we’re just going to have to bear it.
The book opens with the kindly supervisor of nursing giving Ivy the cruel news, that her fiancé of several years—who just wrote to her not three weeks ago to assure her of his love and interest in the plans for their upcoming wedding, the skunk—is turning up after a two-year stint in a New York hospital sporting a ring on his left hand and a wife on his arm. After tumbling from the supervisor’s office, Ivy walks blindly into Dr. Murray Blake and tells him the reason for her pale visage. This being a Peggy Gaddis cum Dern book, you know there has to be a threatened spanking in here somewhere, and Gaddis mercifully gets it over early on, when Murray warns Ivy,  “If you start defending the so-and-so, I’ll probably turn you across my knee and wham you!” From this low there is nowhere to go except to the stalker-like profession of undying love, so Murray offers it up with a thick frosting of darlings, but Ivy isn’t moved, curiously.
Denise Larrimore, the new wife of Dr. Gerry, arrives in due time, and she is “small, shy, demure, and unbecomingly dressed.” She straightaway offers more patented Gaddis treacle, to wit: “I’ll always be happy anywhere you are, and unhappy anywhere unless you are there,” she coos to her new husband. But we soon discover it’s all an act, for reasons unknown: “Being a clinging vine had really paid off, she told herself exultantly,” she says after having won an argument by crying and flinging her arms around his neck. “She’d put it over again!” Denise, who is quite wealthy in her own right and therefore has little need of a man to support herself, proves to be quite the conniver, worming her way into the most important social circles in town—that would be the Garden Club and the Civic Center and the Hospital Auxiliary. I’m not quite sure what made Gerry ever think this woman was shy and demure, because apart from her gushing at him, she certainly never acts like a shrinking violet; she in fact was the one who proposed marriage, not Gerry.
We’re alerted to the fact that “her whole campaign of marriage had been aimed at establishing him as a ‘luxury doctor,’ to whom the people she knew would come when they needed medical advice.” He’s adamantly opposed to the idea, though he feels guilty that he has dragged Denise from her sophisticated city life to a backwater southern town. But it’s not clear why Denise wants this of him, and I’m not really sure if she even loves him, though she repeatedly tells everyone else she does, because in her conversations with him she see-saws between scorn and syrup, and we’ve already been shown that her overblown sentiment is a fiction.
Indeed, it isn’t long before Denise is neglecting to pass on messages that a patient of Gerry’s is dying (“He asked for you before he went into a coma,” Ivy tells the good doctor the next day), spitting at him that she hates this “dizzy, weird little town,” and looking “chic if a bit overpowering in gold lame pants and a black and gold top.” Of course, after gliding down the stairs, she collapses in a puddle and begs Gerry not to divorce her, and the dolt laps it up—and when she’s smiling and satisfied with herself, he suddenly realizes “how little he really knew her. The real Denise, hidden behind her façade of shyness, was demure, retiring. But, he told himself, she wasn’t really like that at all. She was a determined woman who had every intention of getting exactly what she wanted, and if anyone got in the way—well, that was just too bad.” He tells her that he doesn’t know her, but she isn’t at all perturbed: “After all, darling, we have all our lives to get acquainted with each other. And isn’t that a beautiful, frabjous thought?” I’m sorry to report this is not the only time Denise uses the word frabjous.
As Denise mindlessly chatters and watches Gerry eat turnip greens she’s cooked, the recipe for which she’s scoured the town (recipes for turnip greens apparently being very difficult to come by in the South), “her mind was busy. Some day, and not too far off, she would accomplish her purpose for him! She would get him away from that silly little town and back to where he would be appreciated for the very fine cardiologist he was. She would have to move very slowly, very cautiously. She couldn’t afford another misstep.” Just then he interrupts her interior monologue to ask if she is happy and she replies, “I’ve always told you that wherever you were, that was where I wanted to be, and that all I ever want is your happiness.” She gives him a “radiant” smile. “But even as she was convincing him of her happiness there, she was visualizing him in a swank Park Avenue office, beautifully and expensively equipped, with a list of patients that came straight from the top drawer of New York’s most exclusive families. The time would come. Of that she had no doubt.” Slow curtain, and that’s the last we see of this most interesting couple.
Back to the central—and less interesting—pair: When we’re not witnessing Denise’s machinations, we follow Ivy around the hospital as she cares for her patients (including a young boy who has been abused by his mother). She dates Murray, who goes on—with a bit less syrup than Denise—about how much he loves her. “I do so wish that I loved you, Murray,” she tells him heartlessly. For his part, he’s begging, “Maybe some day you’ll discover that you could use my comfort permanently?” Eventually, over dinner, they have an endless argument after she tells him she loves him after all, and then finally come to kisses and the sighing declaration that her love for Gerry was a mistake, and that “you are really the only man I’ve ever wanted to marry.” For good measure we’re told that Gerry has changed. “Now he’s—well, arrogant, and cocksure and self-important,” though we really haven’t seen him acting that way at all.
I can’t help wishing this book had been about Gerry and Denise—it’s pretty clear that Peggy Gaddis found them the more appealing pair, which in point of fact they are, to the point that the book is named for Denise. Ivy is a strong, assertive woman who largely stands up for herself, even with Murray, and her patients are interesting, their stories complex, not facile, and not always with happy endings. We are certainly left with a big question mark regarding Denise’s motivation and her eventual success, which I actually find enjoyable, for once not having the obvious ending plodding toward its inevitable conclusion—sort of like Murray and Ivy’s story. The ongoing debate about whether Denise is demure or outspoken is a bit stupid: How can you be “inwardly” shy if you’re out bending half the town to your will? Isn’t one’s actual behavior the determining criterion? And does inward shyness, if indeed Denise has some, excuse her manipulative actions or make her a more sympathetic character, as Gerry seems to think? The central questions—whether she actually loves Gerry, what drives her to marry him, and whether succeeding in her attempts to re-create him will make her happy—are completely ignored, though this is not necessarily a detriment to the book. Leaving the fate of the Larrimores, and the contents of the heart of the Mrs., completely unresolved is in large part what makes this an interesting story. If there is a fair amount in this book to feel annoyed with, there’s enough here that’s alluring and new to make it well worth reading.

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