By Adeline McElfresh, ©1966
Cover illustration by Victor Livoti
When Jill accompanied Carol Winston to Pinetop Farm, she knew her patient was in need of more than her medical skill. But Jill’s training had not taught her how to heal an almost broken marriage …
“I’m a whiz with a Toni.”
“Taffy was surprisingly chipper for someone whose dura had gushed blood the instant it was opened.”
“She was a nurse, not a teen who at long long last has been noticed by the school’s basketball hero.”
“He sensed her hesitation as skillfully as, during surgery, he would have ferreted out a bit of malignant tissue that must be dissected.”
When I read a VNRN, I tuck an oversized index card into it and make notes as I read on particular passages or plot twists I want to revisit as I write my review. With Nurse Nolan’s Private Duty, however, my card is covered with accounting: the number of times Adeline McElfresh used one of her favorite compound adjectives, “deckle-edged” (two), the variations of people speaking insert adjective here–toned (written just like that, following the verb) (seven: deep, quiet, low, firm, sharp, soft, and warm), the number of times someone freaks out and screams, “Oh God!” (when it’s the nurse) or “Oh Christ!” (when it’s a man) (9 and 7, respectively), the number of times someone calls someone “darling” (too many to count, or five times in just the letter one character writes to her husband asking for a divorce) or any other endearment (zero)—and I haven’t even started discussing how often McElfresh’s prose plunges right off the cliff into the Valley of the Vapid (“sent wind fingers exploring through her hair”), or how Jill’s poor sternum really takes a beating (“an icy lancet scraped behind Jill’s sternum,” “renewed malaise nibbling behind her sternum,” “the icy lancet behind Jill’s breastbone had become a handful of scalpels, indiscriminately wielded”), or the long, boring medical descriptions (“the rate of the infusion had been greatly decreased from the rapid 100-drops-a-minute pace that at first had carried the glucose-sodium chloride-aqueous cortical extract-plasma-penicillin combination into the basilic vein in her right arm”). Really, this book was just too much for me to take.
If at this point you have any interest in hearing about the stupid plot, you are made of firmer stuff than me, but here’s the gist: Our heroine Jill Nolan, with whom we have already plodded with varying degrees of willingness through three other books, is here asked by her fiancé, Giff (Dr. Donald Jonathan Gifford to everyone else), to go with his childhood friend, Carol Cadwallader Winston, back to Carol’s hometown to nurse her through her treatment for Addison’s disease. Carol had wanted to be a pediatrician but had dropped out of medical school in her final year to marry Paul Winston, and we are reminded of this tragic personal sacrifice on virtually every page, as Carol is always embedded in a medical book or journal or mentioning how she had wanted to be a doctor or teaching the girl next door how to make medical tinctures to give her dolls. Paul is a historical romance novelist, if you can believe it, and is working on a horrifyingly long novel (he’s at chapter 23 at book’s open) with his pretty, dedicated, young secretary Susan Morrisey. Carol is convinced that Paul is having an affair with Susan, and actually so is Nurse Jill, after she hears Paul talking to Susan on the phone late one night, saying that everyone will be in bed by 9:00, which clearly indicates that he is “planning an assignation,” that bastard. Jill goes around telling everyone else of her suspicions, and constantly frets that Carol’s worry over the affair is going to send her into an Addisonian crisis that will kill her. No amount of time that Paul spends with Carol or his reasonable explanations for what the ladies paranoically see as suspicious behavior convince them otherwise—until page 123, when Jill suddenly makes a complete about-face and fervently argues with Carol that she’s wrong about Susan and Paul, and seems to believe it, too.
The two major twists in the plot are when ten-year-old Taffy falls off a horse and suffers a subdural hematoma, Nurse Jill of course being sent to the hospital to nurse her, and when Jill suddenly thinks she’s in love with Carol’s brother Michael, with whom she has exchanged about ten pages of brief conversation. As abrupt as her conversion to believing Paul is not in love with Susan, Jill’s devotion swerves erratically back to Giff, which sets up her “hungry” kiss with him in the last paragraph, and my nausea. There are some truly revolting love scenes, the final one almost causing me to heave violently on the morning train. It may be cruel of me, and feel free to skip ahead if you are weak of stomach, but here is just one alarming example: “His kiss had been gentle at first and then hungry, as their love had grown of late; Jill was poignantly conscious of its remembered warmth and yearning on her lips. Oh, how I am going to miss you, Giff, darling!” The married couple abruptly lurches back together in the end and sets sail for Bora Bora, but Carol's continued deep regret over giving up her career is never addressed, perhaps because we're supposed to think that if a woman has a man in her life she doesn't need anything else.
Honestly, I think you might not find this book as horrible as I did, which I think is in no small part due to an overdose of McElfresh (I’ve read 11 of her books, though never graded her as badly as I did this time around; she had a B- average up until now). But after this, all I can say is Oh God! No, wait, I mean how I am not going to miss you, Jill Nolan, darling! No, just that I am going to have to take a long long vacation from Adeline McElfresh.