Saturday, February 16, 2019

Heartbreak Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1968
Cover illustrated by Allan Kass

She knew from the moment he called that Dr. Dean Warner was disturbed. Very disturbed. A tragic accident had critically injured a 5-year-old child and Nurse Lillian Bryant was called upon to deliver superhuman services. As the days passed Lillian puzzled at Dean Warner’s passionate involvement with the child’s welfare, a concern which was bringing him to the point of collapse. Then the rumors began. About Dean and the child’s exotic mother. About a forgotten youth. About the man Lillian loved who expected her to give her own life for a beautiful nightmare out of his past.


“Don’t hold your breath, but in a few months Vernon might advance to the chaste-kiss-on-the-forehead stage. I never believe in rushing these mad, impetuous types. He’s probably all wracked up with guilt over that hand-holding bit.”

Lillian Bryant is the rare VNRN heroine without a boyfriend, and this is not the boys’ fault; she’s rejected men so determinedly that they don’t come knocking on her door any more. Her determined bachelorette status is because she’s hopelessly in love with Dr. Dean Warner, who shows really not one admirable quality that might merit such unswerving devotion. In Chapter One, he’s called Lillian in to the hospital to special five-year-old Patty Ellsworth, who has had some sort of accident with a construction vehicle on her father Howard’s construction site, which has left her near death and with threatened loss of multiple limbs. Dean is out-of-his-mind frantic, and consults pretty much every doctor in the county, then screams at them over their grim conclusions—and he makes mincemeat of all the nurses, including Lillian. And she, naturally, thinks, “She had never loved him as deeply. Even when his nerves had snapped, earlier, and his criticism had become abusive, she had only yearned for the right to put her arms around him.” Because nothing is so alluring as verbal abuse.

After too many days of this intolerable behavior, Dean is ordered from the building, but he’s still out of control for a week, until it seems Patty is on the mend—she wakes, recognizes “Docky Dean,” and strangely makes no request for her parents, which is a good thing, since they rarely bother to show up for a visit. So what’s the deal with one doctor’s fanatical devotion to a child her parents don’t care for? Stay tuned for a shocking turn of events …

Lillian isn’t the only woman here in love with a loser; her roommate Bertha, who is, poor thing, not beautiful, and described as such in relentless and near-mocking terms. As a result of this tragedy, “facing a possible lifetime of living alone, Bertha poured a supercharge of energy into any contact that might end at the altar.” The current target she’s aimed at is Vernon Jessup, a “massive” “colorless administrator,” an “amiable clod” without a sense of humor and a proclivity for “insipid” conversation. Bertha, naturally, falls deeply in love with him.

The bulk of the book follows Patty’s recovery, Dean’s hyper-platonic exchanges with Lillian, and Bertha’s increasing frustration with Vernon’s mooching—and Vernon  eventually breaks a date last-minute with Bertha to propose marriage to Lillian, the swine, his main motivation being that she is “exceptionally beautiful.” Stunned, she can’t muster the strength to slap him across the face.

The crisis comes when Patty’s being discharged. Mom Carmen Ellsworth refuses to be even slightly kind as Patty despairs over leaving the only people who actually care for her, and Dean chastises Lillian for losing her cool with Carmen. In tears in the hallway and furious that Dean defends Carmen’s cruelty to her daughter, Lillian shouts, in full auditory proximity to the nurse’s station, “If you weren’t so calloused that you think … you think I’m just a … just a medical machine … I don’t know how I could have fallen in love with someone so …” Then, realizing too late what she’s said, she dashes off to quit, stopping by Vernon’s office to give notice but forgets that simple chore and instead tells him off himhimas well, saying that Bertha loves him but he doesn’t deserve her. Arriving home, she finds that Bertha has packed Lillian’s bags for her, having heard through the grapevine that Vernon proposed to her, and she refuses to listen to her explanations. Stowing her stuff in her car, Lillian decides to head for LA but, wiped out by the Worst Day Ever, stops at a hotel for the night and runs into Patty’s father, who has left Carmen and is filing for divorce. He reveals to Lillian that Carmen had once been married to Dr. Dean, for about ten minutes, long enough to conceive Patty and obtain a divorce in Reno before Carmen knew she was pregnant. Patty has never known that her close family friend Docky Dean is actually her biological father.

Lillian stumbles to her room and passes out in exhaustion and despair, only to be awoken the next morning by the phone. It’s Bertha, who was tipped to Lillian’s location by Howard Ellsworth, and she reports that after Lillian had ripped Vernon to shreds, he’d hauled his bleeding carcass to Bertha, dropped to one knee and professed undying love. Oh, and Patty’s been readmitted to the hospital, and Dr. Dean is desperate to find her.

Back to the hospital Lillian flies, only to run into Carmen in the waiting room, who tells her that she’s going to give custody of Patty to Dean—and Dean, utterly out of the blue, takes Lillian in his arms and proposes. “I don’t want you just to take care of Patty,” says the romantic fool. “Nurses can resign. And housekeepers have a way of quitting.” Gosh, how sweet.

This book is a fast read that takes you nowhere, really, except maybe a gas station on a desert road.  The plot is nonexistent, the characters are two-dimensional at best, and the writing is half-hearted and uninspired. I can’t believe that either Lillian or Bertha could be happy with these cold, exploitative men, and I can’t believe any reader will enjoy this perfunctory, uninteresting book.

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