When two devoted sisters love the same man, there is bound to be unhappiness; especially in a case like this, where young Dr. Fyncham couldn’t make up his mind between Willow, the competent nurse, and Rose, the sweet, shy home girl. Probably it was just as well for all concerned that a more forceful character took a hand in the game.
“She wished desperately that the conventions didn’t insist that a girl must wait for a man to voice his intentions toward her.”
“Why must sons be so hopelessly obtuse where their mothers are concerned?”
“Never try to be arch or playful. You just haven’t the figure for it.”
“When a girl appears to make it obvious that she has no time for a certain man, that man can be sure she is interested in him.”
“You don’t grovel. You couldn’t. It would spoil the perfect creases in your trousers.”
“Why don’t you kiss more and argue less?”
Nurse Willow Madderley is one an interestingly named family that includes sisters Anchusa, Saffron, and Rose, plus their father. On the opening page, we are attending the reception of sister Saffron, who just having been “safely” married, all but ceases to exist to the family and will barely be mentioned for the remainder of the book. The Madderleys have moved to town recently because their father got into trouble by telling fortunes and was denounced as a fraud. So here they are, trying to keep a low profile in this small English town.
At the reception, we are trailing along behind Nurse Willow, dancing with Dr. Howard Fyncham, who “had a weakness for attractive girls,” but “there was no future in any of his flirtations. His mother saw to that.” Willow has unfortunately succumbed to Howard’s superficial charms; though she seems aware of the shallows of his character, she is still unable to resist him. Howard is also jerking along Willow’s sister Rose, who serves mainly as unpaid maid and companion to his whining barnacle of a mother, crippled by what sounds like rheumatoid arthritis. Willow feels that her major handicap in winning Howard for herself is that she is “too large altogether,” but she would do better to focus on her inclination to be nasty. When the dance is interrupted by a 13-year-old apparent vagabond seeking help for her little brother Perry, who has been pinned under a farm truck, Willow and Howard rush off to assist—Willow making snide remarks to Patty, who immediately nails Willow and calls her “bossy and conceited and horrid.” Willow immediately proves the last charge by worrying more about her dress than the child squashed into the mud: “She didn’t intend to ruin the first new evening gown she had bought for two years.”
Meeting Patty and Perry’s older brother March Carrick-Carre, “a large, raw-boned, ungainly looking man with close-cropped, bristling, fiery-red hair,” she immediately lays into him for not having fetched a blanket, and her meanness is chalked up to an “outraged maternal instinct,” which is pretty hard to swallow after witnessing her rude condescension to Patty on the ride over. “Would March offer to pay for the damage to her slippers, stockings and evening gown?” she fumes “caustically” through gritted teeth as she helps carry Perry down a dirt road on a stretcher. Back at the hospital she cares for young Perry on the night shift, who has not endeared himself to the rest of the staff because he is angry and suspicious—it seems both his parents died after being admitted to a hospital, so he is convinced he is going to die there as well. March, who it turns out has been repeatedly denied access to his brother during the day, climbs in through the window to see Perry, and Willow fights some more with him, bringing up—yet again—her ruined party clothes. “What’s a ruined frock compared with your inward glow of virtue?” he counters, and though he offers to pay for her dress, she surprisingly declines, after all her fussing about it. March is quickly revealed as a funny, straightforward, affectionate man who doesn’t deserve the nasty Willow; he and Perry decide that she’s less of a willow and more of a horse chestnut, or possibly a copper beech. When he calls her handsome, capable and durable, she snaps that the words sound like an advertisement for a household appliance. “You would be quite a valuable appliance in any household, I imagine. You grow on one,” he answers coolly. Love will clearly ensue, sealed by the additional fact that he’s much bigger than even the towering Willow. “I dare say some fellows would call you a hefty armful, but you’re just right for me. Care to experiment?” he asks her. If Willow does resist, I find it hard not to love this guy.
Instead, Willow continues to pine for Howard, who increasingly demonstrates that he is a limp, exploitative, unfeeling ass when he allows Rose to spend hours a day caring for his mother, neglecting her duties as housekeeper of her own family, without even a word of thanks. “I don’t like to feel that we’re imposing on her good nature,” he says to Willow, who seems to have caught some of March’s honesty and replies, “You are, of course.” So in a moment of weakness Howard proposes to Rose, but then goes crawling off to Willow to try to get her to help him out of it, now that he’s had time to think about the qualities he wants in a wife, who could “do so much to lighten her husband’s burdens. It was amazingly difficult to get a competent secretary to answer the telephone, keep accounts, and help in the surgery,” and a nurse like Willow, “who was so crisp, astringent and undemanding,” would be ideal. During this pathetic interview, Willow is “quivering with anticipation” in the hope that he will declare himself to her, regardless of how abominably he’s treated her sister. “‘This is it,’ she had thought eagerly. ‘Hold tight, girl! Dreams do sometimes come true…’” After a number of horrible excuses about why he should dump Rose, he’s about to tell Willow that she’s the one he wants—and it seems she’s horrid enough that she might accept—when March barges in to deflate them both. “Have I interrupted a tender moment? Good! Doctors and nurses are better apart in their private lives. Who wants to go around in a perpetually hygienic and sterile atmosphere?” he laughs. He is way too good for Willow, but seems stuck on her anyway.
Speaking of stuck, Howard seems to be—true to his slimy character he refuses to give Rose a ring or ask her to name the day she will make him the happiest of men. Eventually the weasel works his way around to telling Rose that “they” have made a mistake, ending their secret engagement—and her indentured servitude to his mother—though later he lies to his mother and says that it was Rose who broke it off. His cruel treatment of Rose finally wakes Willow to his true nature, and here her ability to make nasty comments is put to good use as Howard tries to worm back into Willow’s good graces when it turns out that his mother wants Rose back. “If he wanted Rose to take him on again, he must do his own groveling,” she decides. Rose, for her part, is standing firm for once: “Howard had tried her too far and she couldn’t forget it.” But, alas, eventually she does, when Howard pleads—not hard enough—that she was always the only one for him. March also triumphs over Willow’s stubbornness—in part because he shows up at the hospital just in time to help after the hospital has caught on fire and she’s trying to shepherd all the pediatric patients down the slippery fire escape.
There is a lot more to this excellent, brimming book than just the stories of Willow and Rose; sister Anchusa has her own excellent story line, as does a former girlfriend of March’s. Many of the characters in this book are just delightful, particularly March, Patty, and Willow’s father. Only Willow is a slightly bitter pill, though she improves over time. The writing is amusing and campy, and it’s easy to become immersed in this comfortable world, so addictively drawn that it feels like you’re visiting a real neighborhood. My only disappointments were that Howard won in the end with little comeuppance for his manipulative, spineless character, and that Willow too doesn’t really regret her earlier poor behavior, or seem to learn from it or evolve. But in the setting of this charming story, these flaws are minor and should not keep you from Jan Tempest’s delightful book.