Saturday, December 6, 2014

Country Club Nurse

By Dorothy Cole 
(pseud. Frances Y. McHugh), ©1967
They were the glamorous super-rich—could she help heal their broken lives? Caring for an overindulged young socialite at the wealthy Chanticleer Club, Nurse Erda Sanders soon finds a new romance among “the beautiful people”—as well as plots and counterplots threatening not only her principles but lives!
“Oh, don’t try any of your nurse psychology on me. Go on to bed.”
“Go change your dress. You’ll be more comfortable in something less forbidding.”
“They read the newspapers together every day and discussed the state of the world politically, as well as socially. Although Erda was upset by the various riots around the country, she tried not to show it so she wouldn’t upset her patient.”
“I got fed up and gave him back his ring. It didn’t amount to anything anyway. You could scarcely see the stone.”
After the delightfully daffy Nurse at the Fair, I had been looking forward to another encounter with author Dorothy Cole. Unfortunately, the second date leaves me far less impressed: Country Club Nurse is pretty dumb, but not nearly as out-and-out dopey as its sister, and nowhere near as entertaining, I am sorry to report.
Erda Sanders is coming home after a month-long assignment in upstate New York to the apartment she shares on 85th Street between York and East End Avenues (we’re actually given the exact bus route she takes from Grand Central, but I won’t bore you) when she sees a young woman “with Miss Clairol honey blonde hair” run over by a boy on a bicycle. Erda is hired on the spot to care for socialite housewife Jessica Prentis, moves into the patient’s apartment, and spends a week watching with increasing irritation over the spoiled, demanding patient and witnessing numerous loud arguments between manipulative Jessica and her domineering husband Bart.
When Bart is at work, Jessica hangs out with Lenny Williams, who “was what could be called ‘a hippie.’ At least Erda guessed that was what they called ‘beatniks’ now. She didn’t keep up with such things.” Lenny coaxes money from Jessica and steals her engagement ring, but Jessica has an unexplained attachment to the seedy lad and continues to support him. Bart, needless to say, is not fond of the youth, and the pair fights about Lenny as well.
Upon her arrival into the domestic scene, Erda immediately begins to pose a lot of questions about her new employers: “Was Jessica Prentis really the only woman in Bart Prentis’ life? Did he really love her, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t shown any evidence of it that afternoon? And where did his grandmother fit into the picture?” (The question about the grandmother is about as odd to the reader as it appears here.) Jessica eggs on Erda’s natural detective instincts by asking random questions such as, “Did you ever want to kill someone?” Furthermore, when Jessica meets up with Lenny, they converse about his aunt, home from the hospital, and that incites Erda’s paranoid delusions too: “All the way up in the taxi she’d wondered about the conversation concerning Lenny’s aunt, and why she should be bitter against the Prentis family.” In another book, these questions might be foreshadowing, but it must be acknowledged that a good 75 percent of Erda’s suspicious musings go absolutely nowhere.
So when the Prentises offer Erda the opportunity to come with them to the Chanticleer Country Club on Long Island for the duration of the summer, Erda tags along despite the fact that she really doesn’t like her patient at all, who incidentally is increasingly mobile and in fact goes out shopping daily. Not long after she arrives, Erda’s duties are transferred to the mysterious grandmother, Mrs. Isabelle Prentis, who is spry enough at 80 that Erda can barely keep up with her when they walk the club grounds. With Bart’s aunt Jean and her son Joseph also in residence, the family of five manages to fight viciously at every meal. Isabelle at one point declares to Erda, “I’m not a favorite with my family. All families don’t love each other. And I am a very rich woman.” Now the nurse has this to obsess over—combined with Jessica’s idle question about murder, she’s really building it into something with legs: “But she wouldn’t! Not in cold blood!”
Meanwhile, Erda is falling for Joseph, who is a physics professor at Amherst wounded twice in Vietnam and captain of the family yacht, which is kept moored at the club, so he parades around in full navy whites a lot. He invites her dancing and tells her, “I wish I knew you well enough to kiss you,” the cad. “And dancing in his arms, Erda felt that at last she had found a man for whom she would be willing to give up her profession, her very life.” Yikes! This after barely half an hour!
Isabelle suddenly comes down with food poisoning, and after a lot of questioning through about 20 pages it’s determined it was the lobster salad—though everyone completely goes to pieces about this, especially the author, who gives Bart “a murderous expression” on one page and induces him to say that a planned family cruise to Halifax “might be murder.” Recovered, Isabelle spots a new maid in the hallway and is convinced that it’s actually her dead son’s widow Elise—Bart’s mother—arrived to follow through on a threat made eight years ago to kill Isabelle. Sure enough, Isabelle shortly goes into insulin shock, and it is found that her normal medications had been substituted for much stronger pills. Then, during yet another of their epic battles, Jessica spills the beans to Bart that Lenny the Hippie is actually his cousin, Elise’s sister’s son, and the money Jessica gives to Lenny is for Elise, who is dying of cancer. In response to this news, Bart promises to beat his mother’s location out of Lenny, and Erda discreetly slips away, returning to her room to ponder the Prentis’ marriage all night.
The next day, as the family is taking the club launch out to the yacht, a speedboat appears and begins to closely circle their boat, throwing several people into the water. Lenny is at the helm, hopped up on LSD, and Bart attempts to swim to Lenny’s boat and is run over. Bobbing in the water and barely able to draw breath, Erda is never too busy to come up with a string of pointless questions: “Why, she wondered, was Bart deliberately endangering his life? Was it because he thought he could stop Lenny’s crazy speeding or because he wanted to beat him up and force him to tell where his mother, Elise was?” Bart is going down for the third time when Jessica, sporting the green bikini that Isabelle strictly forbade her to wear, dives in and keeps him afloat until the Coast Guard arrives to collar Lenny and haul the Prentises from the drink. Lenny is babbling about his aunt, who had committed suicide with sleeping pills the day before, leaving a note saying that she had tried to kill Isabelle and was terminally ill anyway. Now that she’s dead, though, “we’ll never know how Elise managed to duplicate the regular insulin pills in appearance,” darn the luck.
Though Lenny is guilty of at least third-degree murder, whether he is brought to trial is apparently the Prentis family’s decision, and they opt not to press charges. In the literal wake of this tragic scene, Joseph starts kissing the daylights out of Erda and then proposes, so now it looks like she’ll be heading off to Amherst when the season ends. I wish I could tell you I felt some sort of pleasure at this ending, but all I could do was hope for an engagement long enough to allow poor Joseph to come to his senses.
There’s definitely a goodly amount of stupidity in this book, but it’s not as over the top as was Nurse at the Fair. Mostly it’s just dumb, without one bit of inadvertent brilliance in it. Erda comes across as a cramped, prudish character with a penchant for asking absurd and irrelevant questions, and most of the time her “nursing” is really just babysitting wealthy people who don’t like to be alone, hardly admirable work. The inconsistencies in this book are endless: how could a shallow infant like Jessica have kept the secret about Elise for so long? Why does Lenny keep the secret as well? Why does Elise suddenly pop up after eight years to murder Isabelle yet have no desire to see her son? Why do these people who do nothing but scream at each other continue to gather every night of every summer at the club to exercise their animosities? What in God’s name does Joseph see in Erda? How did Elise know that Isabelle took insulin? How did she manage to duplicate the regular pills in appearance? If the inconsistencies felt intentional, as they almost did with Nurse at the Fair, you could chalk them up as a knowing wink from an author endeavoring to entertain a savvy audience with a bit of camp. But at the country club, they just come across as sloppy and pointless, and the intelligent reader is better off staying in Manhattan, or heading for the fair.

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