Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nurse Farley’s Decision

By Teresa Holloway, ©1959
Auburn-haired Susan Farley had brilliantly graduated from her long, difficult nurse’s training. Now, at big, modern St. Patrick’s she was practicing the profession she loved. One day Susan was assigned the traction case in Room 212 in the Orthopedic wing. Oliver Cox, she saw, was a handsome older man accustomed to wealth and power. Grateful for Susan’s skillful nursing, Cox offered to endow St. Patrick’s with a cancer clinic. But there was a string attached to his gift—in exchange he wanted Susan for his wife. Susan was faced with an overwhelming decision. As Oliver Cox’s wife she might be instrumental in finding the cure for the deadly killer. But—what of the profession for which she had so proudly trained and dedicated herself?
“Circles under blue eyes are danger signals.”
“She put her cheek on one of the thin hands, the one without the needle.”
“What in the world am I going to do about my complexion? Jimmy hates pimply girls, and he’s taking me to Seminole Club tomorrow night.”
“Years of people’s lives went into the training of these hands beneath that brilliant light. Mothers’ lives—teaching gentleness and a desire to serve; fathers’ lives, dedicated to earning the money to make knowledge within their grasp.”
“She’s pretty enough to hang on the wall.”
“Because it was midsummer, Arch Curtis survived his battle with the tiger shark.”
“All the ‘womanly docility’ the Sister in charge of the conduct class had stressed, flew out of the window.”
Fear not, readers, Susan Farley is not, as falsely advertised on the back cover blurb above, asked to prostitute herself to fund a cancer lab. I don’t quite know what to think when the cover describes a book completely unlike the one I actually read, but in this case I must confess I was relieved, because it sounded horrid.
In actuality, Susan Farley is trying to decide whether she should take a job at Dr. Mitchell’s office, which pays more and will enable her to fund her younger sister’s college education, or stick with hospital nursing, which she really loves. This “decision,” however, is removed from her when her father tells her that she should take the hospital job and they’ll find the money for Grace’s education somewhere else. When she goes to ask for the job in surgery, however, she’s told that it’s been filled, and she’s convinced that Dr. Mitchell—who is, in fact, chief of staff—has blackballed her from the position. She takes a job in orthopedics instead, but only after she jumps into the pier to save a young woman—too late, as it happens—who has just given birth to a baby boy, and the ensuing publicity, her photo landing on the front page and all, gives her a little leverage to make some demands.
At the hospital, she works along side Dr. Archibald Curtis, who makes her little heart go pitter-pat whenever she sees him, and they are good friends but nothing more—“until he himself changed the color of their relationship,” because it’s just not possible for a decent young woman to make a pass. When she catches him talking to a young candy-striper in a pink dress, however, she falls all to pieces, especially after a date with Arch at the beach during which she rescues him from a tiger shark and brings him home to her house and puts on a pink dress, which apparently is going to remind him of this young woman. “In her hurry to get some hot food ready for Arch when he was ready for it, she had chosen the one dress she shouldn’t have. Unfortunately there was no time to change it. Susan was out of sorts all evening. Arch, bewildered, went home early.”
The incident with the shark ends up in the newspaper—making it twice in the past week Susan’s landed on the front page—and Arch is convinced Susan is a publicity hound who took the story to the paper herself. She is mortified: “No man wanted to be pulled out of the water by a girl,” she thinks, as the fellows apparently prefer death to such a dishonor. “What can I do to ease the hurt this story is going to cause Arch? The other fellows are going to rib him about being both shark bait and woman bait—I can just hear them.” Eventually it’s revealed that sister Grace is the one who spilled the beans, to a cute boy who works for the newspaper. So that’s the end of that little escapade.
More little stories pile into the book—a woman with a lip cancer was operated on by Dr. Mitchell but now has a horrible scar and lost her husband because of it, the dead woman’s boy is being raised in the hospital, wealthy patient Oliver Cox agrees to fund a cancer center because of Susan’s fervent interest in that particular disease, it is proposed that the orphaned baby be raised by the hospital, Susan notices a skin cancer on Dr. Mitchell’s nose. At the dinner that brings together the head honchos to talk about the cancer center, Susan is the only woman—invited by Oliver Cox—but Arch gets jealous and snubs her, so she just walks out of the dinner without saying goodbye to anyone, including her date, and climbs into the red Thunderbird belonging to the young candy striper, who immediately drives off the road and is nearly killed, except Susan is there to apply pressure to the head wound in the ambulance all the way to the hospital. Really, if you were hoping for a quiet evening at home, you’d better stay away from Susan Farley.
At the end of the book, Susan out of the blue decides that what with the car accident and all, she’s “getting some kind of sense knocked into my head.” It was probably just a concussion, but she gets up the next morning and goes to work anyway. What she meant by sense, apparently, is that she decides that her younger sister is not the spoiled pet she’d thought she was, and that “I’ve had the attitude, all along, that St. Patrick’s was mighty lucky to have a chance at the services of the dedicated Susan Farley, R.N.” I’m not sure that it follows that her attitude about working in surgery was wrong: Shouldn’t you fight for what you want, and have some healthy egotism about a job you’re good at? Then she decides that the woman’s bad lip scar doesn’t mean she should think less of Dr. Mitchell, that “a man doesn’t build up that large a practice without doing a lot of good to a lot of people. Of course he’s bound to make mistakes. Everyone does.” She exhorts Arch, who has been offered the chance to join the chief of staff’s practice, to give the matter careful thought rather than dismissing it outright, and blames the woman with the scar for not asking to have it fixed—and it turns out that Arch already has, though I’m not sure what his participation in this woman’s story is supposed to signify. All these little revelations, with no actual obvious difference between the character at the beginning of the book and the one at the end, are apparently what passes for “growth”: “It wasn’t only the big, sprawling hospital that was growing. Somehow, it impelled them all to grow along with it,” Susan says on the last page, in a thoroughly anticlimactic ending. Declaring something doesn’t make it so; remember Dick Cheney and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Overall this is not a terrible book, and the character of Oliver Cox is very well drawn, as is the party that he takes Susan to. But it can seem like a collection of bizarre incidents and extraneous details such as this one: When Susan discovers that she’s put on a pink dress and can’t change it, she stands in the middle of the big kitchen and makes chopping gestures of anger while holding a messy egg beater and splatters egg all over the linoleum, which Grace had just cleaned that morning since the cleaning woman hadn’t been able to get to it and it was Grace’s day to clean the floors, so Grace is fussing at Susan about the mess while cleaning it up with a damp sponge. Did we really need to know all that minute detail? It just makes me feel puzzled and expectant that something down the road will turn up to give this overdrawn moment some relevance, but it never happens. I think Teresa Holloway has the potential to put together a fine book, because some of the details in this story are very nicely sketched, but she really needs some help on plots, because without a good linear thread, you’re just left with a few pretty paragraphs and a lot of head scratching.

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