Monday, October 31, 2016

My Love an Altar

By Joan Sargent
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1963

To Roxanne Collier, Dr. Vance Collier had become a shadow-husband keeping up the façade of an empty marriage, so when Dr. Fritz Bascomb showed her that she was still a beautiful, desirable woman, she was grateful and flattered. Then tragedy struck in the form of an epidemic that threatened the lives of the town’s children. It was a time for some quick and deep soul-searching, for Vance and Roxanne faced not only the break-up of their marriage but the loss of their child.


“What’s he doing to Pomeroy that the rest of us wouldn’t if we got the chance?”

“He’s going to get better. He assures me that he won’t stay in such a place as this and that he hates me. You can’t down a man like that.”

“Miss Skipper, completely won over, was quite willing to try anything that went with that smile.”

“How do you like being an incurable disease, Beautiful?”

I’ve been on a roll lately, finding myself in some of the more interesting VNRNs I’ve met to date. My Love an Altar continues in this vein: The main characters are a decade older than most, are already married (even if only to each other), and are attracted to other people. Roxanne Collier is the perfect doctor’s wife, beautiful, stylish, a brilliant hostess—and she hates every minute of it. On the inside she is insecure, lonely, and contemplating a major change in life. Her husband, chief of staff Vince Collier, admittedly married young Roxanne for her money, and has built a successful career as the head of a major sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment. He’s not happy, either, however, because he is overwhelmingly guilt-ridden, feeling he has been handed everything on a silver platter belonging to his father-in-law, who has funded Vince’s education and the hospital itself.

Then, at a dinner party during which Roxanne is suffering a major migraine, she is seated next to psychiatrist Fritz Bascomb, who recognizes Roxanne’s ailment as springing from the deep-seated dissatisfaction in her life. He rescues her from the party, takes her home, gives her medication, and days later is taking her out for pie at the truck stop on the edge of town. He’s an incorrigible flirt and knows how to use his powers, and soon his attentions perk up the wilting Roxanne, giving her a confidence she had lacked when she felt overlooked and unappreciated. She secretly begins taking classes at the local university and plots a trip to Reno when the couple’s daughter, Susan, goes off to college next year.

Vance, meanwhile, has an office nurse, Mary Pendleton, who has long been in love with the doctor and with whom he shares a not entirely professional relationship. Nothing untoward happens, of course, but his demeanor toward her is more possessive and involved than it should be. After several years of this, Mary has decided she needs to put an end to the chaste affair and submits her resignation. Vance has a better idea, however, and offers her a post working for the new doctor in town, Tom Hazard. Soon Mary is looking at Tom with the same adoring eyes she once cast on Vance, and for some inexplicable reason Vance despises young Tom and his new-fangled ways of treating tuberculosis.

The climax of the book comes when Vance’s daughter—along with a good number of other children in town—becomes desperately ill with a tuberculosis-like disease that no one can diagnose, and it’s all hands on deck to save her life. The ending is exactly what you know it will be—even the mystery epidemic is foretold in the book’s opening chapter (and this is by no means a spoiler). We couldn’t actually have a VNRN solve its romantic dilemmas with divorce, but this book is unique in that it gives us characters who are preparing to take that ignoble route. The writing is quietly more than competent and honestly sincere, and I must confess I even shed a tear at one point. Though it lacks the camp I hope for in a VNRN, we do, however, have some sass in the Collier’s daughter, Susan, who is full of quips like, “I know the book says an adolescent gets a crush on a man much older, but don’t worry about me and Dr. Bascomb. I’m thinking of having my crush on Mr. Bates, who teaches physics at school. He’s more my type. Sort of plain and helpless.” If its ending is not as revolutionary as it hints it could be, this book has a lot more to offer than most of the herd. 

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