Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thank You, Nurse Conway

By Marjorie Norrell, ©1966

It seemed that all Stephen Fendrick lived for was his work as a consultant, and it was to take a sick child and Staff Nurse Susie Conway to prove that there were things in life which mattered more.


“He was known to be ‘allergic’ to the opposite sex.”

Susie Conway is a pediatric nurse typical of the VNRN: She is desperately in love with Dr. Stephen Fendrick, though as far as his feelings go, she is “unsure of anything and everything about him except the knowledge that she loved him with every fiber of her being, that she had done so all the time she had known him, and would continue to do so to the end of her days.” He is a cold, driven machine focused on nothing but making a name for himself as the world’s greatest pediatrician, so her fanatical devotion to him seems rather undeserved. “If only he would indicate that he was the slightest bit interested in her as a person, she would wait quite willingly, for as long as he deemed necessary for anything more,” she thinks. I always get a sinking feeling when, upon meeting the woman I’m going to be spending the next 100+ pages with, I find she is a spineless, pathetic doormat. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had a few painful unrequited crushes in my day, but when the object of her martyrdom is essentially a cipher—and they’re often overtly nasty jerks; see Beth Lloyd, Surgical Nurse and TV Nurse, to name a few—I just can’t feel anything but disgust at her ridiculous self-sacrifice.

The crux of the story revolves around a four-year-old girl, Fenella Edison, who is brought to the hospital after climbing into one of the family cars and attempting to drive off to see her mother, a superstar model who travels on business a great deal of time. Fenella can’t reach the pedals, so how she managed to turn on the car is a bit of a mystery, but she drives into the wall surrounding the family estate and suffers a concussion. Fenella’s father Philip is quite devoted to his little daughter, but as a successful businessman he does not have a lot of time to devote to her, and naturally the book views it as a shocking sacrifice on his part that he is with her as much as he is—out of necessity, since his wife is always out of town. Fenella’s mother, the heartless bitch, persists in having her own successful career, one her husband supports wholeheartedly, but we know she doesn’t deserve it because she’s abandoned her daughter at home, and not only that, she kept her maiden name! Her atrocious behavior is held up for our contempt on virtually every other page: “If Petal Highbridge really cared about either her handsome and charming wealthy husband or the lovely little girl who was her daughter, she would be well advised to spend less time on her chosen career, successful though it might be, and more on her home and her small but pleasant family.”

Susie and Stephen are conspiring to help Fenella by setting up a residential nursery school that she can attend, so Fenella goes to school during the day and sleeps over at Susie’s house, though I’m not sure how living with Susie’s mother is better than being in her own home with her own father. It seems the author thinks that having any woman at all care for you is better than having a male parent; of course Fenella has a housekeeper and governess at home, but these women are foreigners—Italians!—so there you go. Also perplexing is the author’s treatment of Fenella’s felllow students’ mothers, who also work during the day: For them the school is part of the sympathetic village that helps to raise the children, while Petal is despised because she does not do it alone. We even meet some of these working mothers, but they are supported and encouraged by Susie as devoted mothers. Is part of Petal’s crime that she works when she is wealthy enough not to have to?

Susie and Stephen continue their meddling in the Edison family when they decide that Petal should have “another child, the son Philip’s always saying he hopes they have one day. Fenella would be happier and they would have learned by experience that there are other things which matter just as much as money … love, and just someone being there when they’re needed or even  just wanted.” It’s difficult to imagine how they’re going to pull off this pregnancy, much less contrive a Y chromosome and then imbue it with these transformative powers when the first one didn’t seem to do the job. Maybe it’s the gender of the baby that makes all the difference?

Gradually Stephen spends more time with Susie, at first with extracurricular efforts to interfere in the Edison’s home life, and then sliding into dates, he going so far as to ask her to a couple of dances and bring her roses. You know eventually he will get around to opening his own eyes to the advantages of the family he’s working so hard to obtain for the Edisons. He doesn’t actually commit during the book’s pages, though in the penultimate page he’s given the huge promotion he’s always wanted, and asks Susie out for a very special evening in the last paragraph, so in the end he eats his cake and has it too, failing to commit to a relationship until he’s secure in his professional success. Comparing his career track to Petal’s, it is hard to see why one person is viewed as a winner after he achieves both career success and fiancĂ©e while the other is only a half-empty heartless loser until she gives up her career and, yes, becomes pregnant with what is sure to be that longed-for magical son.

Another big problem with this book is that it can’t use three words when they could be stretched taffy-like into three paragraphs. Every drive down the street yields a description of each house they pass and its residents; a simple card Stephen includes with the roses he gives Susie reads, “May the fragrance of these roses remind you of the sweetness and beauty of your home life, and their beauty of form remind you that the opulence of Moor Top can be matched everywhere by nature herself, and in the hope that the combined fragrance and beauty will bring a measure of the same happiness to you as so much that you are responsible for brings to other people.” Phew! In the end the story drags on and on and on and on, and really isn’t all that interesting at baseline, so what we end up with is a pretty dull book in which we watch our heroine moon over a fairly bland man who hasn’t done anything to deserve it.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Beth Lloyd, Surgical Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1970
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

Nurse Beth Lloyd had just broken with the man she loved, the brilliant young surgeon Dr. Paul Bryant. She was heartbroken when he accused her of trying to push him into a marriage he felt would hinder his career. Suddenly into their lives came Jimmy Ladue, critically in need of a heart transplant. And Paul’s conservative senior partner, Dr. Weston, so strongly opposed to the new techniques, was for some mysterious reason willing to perform the operation. It was to be a transplant that would transform all their lives. For in its wake a desperate secret would emerge—a secret to threaten the reputation of two fine surgeons and bring Beth Lloyd heartbreakingly close to the man she was trying so hard to forget.


“The chic ex-songstress could be seen puffing an endless chain of cigarettes in the coronary care reception room.”

Beth Lloyd is a surgical nurse desperately in love with the cardiac surgeon she works for, who proves true to type and is an angry, arrogant jerk who dates Beth but refuses to offer more than vague expressions of interest, a setup that author Jane Converse has employed to equally poor effect in Heartbreak Nurse. Beth, needless to say, can’t seem to shake the loser. “Any opportunity to be with Paul, even a stodgy dinner at the Westons’,” thinks our pathetic masochist, “was better than staying in her own apartment, thinking about Paul, wondering why, apart from a few almost platonic goodnight kisses, he avoided any meaningful involvement with her … gave out no hope that their relationship would progress beyond its present stalemate.” Not surprisingly, at the end of chapter one, they get into an argument in the cafeteria when he gripes that the senior surgeon he works with, Dr. Merrill Watson, and his stuffy, high-society wife Lois are trying to pressure him into marrying Beth and settling him into a “smooth, proper, unchanging” life, which he implies is a “trap” worse than death—and then starts shouting when Beth, feeling rightfully insulted, questions whether his desire to perform a cardiac transplant in a small-town Indiana hospital, likely unprepared to handle such a complex patient, is due to his relentless and single-minded drive to make what he himself calls “some valid contribution to surgery” instead of enjoying life.

Paul Bryant’s partner, the stodgy Dr. Weston, is adamant that they will never do a cardiac transplant—until he turns up with 23-year-old  Jimmy Ladue, a talented artist imported from Paris with his trampy mother Sara, a former lounge singer who stalks the hall in her stilettos trailing cigarette smoke. Jimmy is dying from chronic ventricular fibrillation, and now the surgeons are planning their transplant. Even when things are going his way, Paul continues to demonstrate his “tense, almost paranoiac” streak: When Beth offhandedly mentions that the transplant could give a second chance to “a wonderful, talented, valuable person”—well! “Your attitude disgusts me!” Paul erupts, outraged that Beth isn’t “thinking of the advancement this operation may mean in cardiac surgery” and he bizarrely insists that her appreciation of this one patient means she doesn’t care about “old, untalented, unvaluable people”—though of course no doctor in their right mind would do a cardiac transplant on an old unhealthy person unlikely to survive the rigors of surgery. “All the pressure that had caused Paul to use Beth as a target tonight,” Beth thinks, means that “his violent reaction could have been triggered by almost any statement.” No wonder she’s so hopelessly in love.

Now the surgical team is on hold until a suitable donor presents—and after a couple of weeks, a healthy bum who has been beaten to the edge of death wheels in, conscious enough to sign the consent to give his heart to Jimmy Ladue—and conveniently dies on the OR table. Now the team is scrubbing for the cardiac transplant, when a nurse bursts in and cries out that Dr. Weston has died in a car crash on the way in. Dr. Paul proceeds with the surgery, which goes off swimmingly—but now the newspapers are asking why Dr. Weston was going forward with a surgery he had previously disavowed, and how the donor patient turned up so conveniently. Dr. Paul is promptly labelled Prime Suspect #1. The police are closing in when out of the blue the obvious story—one worthy of a Florence Stonebraker novel, actually—emerges and the insane murderer comes forward. It’s not nurse Beth, though you could attribute her with madness when at the end she falls into Paul’s arms and agrees to marry the bastard.

This is a mediocre book in which Jane Converse has fallen back on all her old tricks without putting in the least effort to sprinkle any spice on them. It’s resemblance to Heartbreak Nurse is quite uncanny, and it’s not even as good as that fairly lame book. If your alternative for the afternoon is watching paint dry, this might be a better choice, but on the other hand, you could in that time conjure up without too much difficulty a far better book than this one.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Next Patient, Doctor Anne

Elizabeth Gilzean, ©1958
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik

Anne had two ambitions—to qualify as a doctor and to marry Jonathan, the boy-next-door whom she had loved for years and who was himself going to be a doctor. Were the two wishes compatible, or would he decide that he didn't want a wife with a profession of her own? Or again, would he, going to the other extreme, be dazzled by the brilliance of Eva Clipston, who was the bright star of the Medical School and the daughter of a Professor of Surgery who could do a great deal of good to Jonathan's career? Jonathan was only one year ahead of Anne as a student, but that year seemed to have put a gulf between them and she was far from certain that she could bridge it.


“You are trying to gatecrash into a man’s world and even if you do make it, they will never let you forget that you are a courtesy visitor after all. You’re much too young to know that men resent brains in a woman. It frightens them to death.”

“Play at doing medicine if it makes you happy, but never forget you are a woman.”

“If a man can no longer punch the chap that annoys him, something has to happen to the end products of his primitive anger reaction. All that extra adrenaline that his anger triggered off to put that twitching fist into action has to go somewhere when the social code keeps the fist in his pocket. So modern man has gastric ulcers, hardening arteries, and probably coronary thrombosis, as a reward for keeping his temper.”

Anne Greenslade is a bit of a curiosity in VNRN Land—when the curtain opens, she has just failed her exams to get into medical school. This means that her sort-of boyfriend, Jonathan Moore, is starting medical school without her. After a day or two of wallowing in self-pity, Anne rebounds, gets a job in medical records recording case histories, studies her buns off, and passes a year later.

So then she goes to medical school, facing some but honestly not a whole lot of prejudice from patients, professors, and fellow students. The years pass and we follow Anne through her triumphs and failures—not to mention all the times she runs into Jonathan in the halls, where he grabs her and makes cryptic comments like, “Anne, dear little Anne, if only …” before kissing her passionately and running away, leaving her “too shaken by his kiss and his pleading” to get back to work. Meanwhile, she hangs out with her best friend, Dr. Bill Donley, who—surprise!—professes that he’s in love with Anne during their fourth year, though “she had never dreamed that Bill cared.” We, on the other hand, could tell from the day they met! And frankly I was rooting for Bill, who, in addition to fitting the Casey Theory, spends a lot more time with Anne and is a kind, generous, warm man who takes her on picnics in the country when she’s looking particularly peaked. Jon, though he does help occasionally, and then often from the sidelines, is usually gallivanting off to London with fellow medical student Eva Clipston, the chief of surgery’s daughter and a cold, beautiful, diagnostic machine whom patients don’t care for because of her “hurting hands” and brusque manner. Anne’s jealousy peeks out on regular occasions, fortunately not enough to be irritating, and to make the story more interesting, the two women do work together regularly in a collegial fashion without clawing each other’s eyes out. They’re not best friends, of course, but are not bitter enemies, either.

Throughout the story, Anne’s training feels quite real: “she was to discover all too soon that a day was 24 hours long. Some people had the idea that a night was for sleeping, but Anne found out that this didn’t include house surgeons … She learned the art of being in three places at once, and the knack of putting first things first, and the importance of a smile whether it was on a ward round or at three o’clock in the morning.” She learns to do venous cutdowns to place an IV (!!!), she gets reamed out by nurses for her mistakes, she finally does her first appendectomy in her third year. She finds her own strengths in her attention to detail and her compassion, even as she sees her shortcomings in other areas; she develops into a sensitive clinician who cares about the patient’s social situation and their family, and is frequently called to glean important clues from family or friends, or to deliver bad news, or to buck up a patient’s flagging spirits. If the ending just sort of dwindles down to an expected and not especially climactic close, that’s a minor flaw in this sweet, gentle story, one certainly worth reading.

Monday, April 8, 2019

With Love from Dr. Lucien

By Pauline Ash, ©1966

The Bollington family had only one career in mind—medicine—and had all set their sights on the Axfrinton General Hospital. All except the youngest, Christine, whose life as a nurse was a nightmare from the start.


“Every man has something different to offer, unless of course you loathe him.”

“Anyone who tells you that brothers like each other to use their private possessions—whether homes or merely pen-knives—well, they’re usually people who haven’t any brothers.”

“That’s a sure way of losing people’s regard, giving advice!”

“I am aware that most young nurses are underfed, but it isn’t a pretty performance when they set out to prove it. I’m old-fashioned enough to like my women to peck like little birds.”

“People said your heart broke and things like that, but, Christine told herself in mild astonishment, it wasn’t anywhere near the heart that real grief took you.”

An essay by Bill Casey called “Nurse Novels” written in 1964 that I found recently—which though I have some criticism of I heartily recommend you read—puts forth a most interesting theory: You can predict which man the heroine will choose in the end based on his name, which in his limited research (20 books) is a one-syllable first name and a two-syllable last name. I’m finding the Casey Theory is interesting, but did not hold up for my sampling of 30, which yielded a 30% success rate: Just to start with the last three VNRNs, Roy Conliffe beat out Peter Noble in Nurse Lavinia’s Mistake, but Martin Graham and March Carrick-Carre both won in Tender Nurse and Nurse Willow’s Ward, respectively. In this book, however, we have a couple of noncompliant options, Kenan Bollington and Lucien Phayre—and the fact that Kenan is our heroine’s cousin disqualifies him not at all.

Outside of this anomaly, the book has other curiosities. Christine Bollington, who turns 18 in the first chapter, is being forced to go to nursing school because everyone in her family is wildly dedicated and successful doctor or nurse. The youngest in the family, and even called “Baby,” she doesn’t want them to know that she would rather be an artist: “They would be so disappointed, so ashamed that one of them shouldn’t want to follow in their footsteps.” Nursing school does, however, allow her to move out of her pink and white frilly bedroom—decorated thusly by her mother apparently to keep Christine forever a child—into the dormitory, which she greatly appreciates. But her lack of interest in nursing is topped by her lack of aptitude, her first attempt to make “invalid food” resulting in an “awful mess—too awful for it to be turned into something else by the resourceful staff nurse.” And there’s more: “Her efforts with inserting a hypo needle into the piece of pork provided from the kitchen had resulted in two broken needles, and Christine turning green.” Needless to say, she’s in competition for last place in her class until the other student is asked to consider a different occupation.

Her ace in the hole is Dr. Lucien Phayre, who is an old chum of her brother’s. They meet for the first time in the first chapter on the night of Christine’s birthday party, when she’s been dressed up by her older sister Almira as a stunning sophisticate—a major change from her usual role of the lace-capped, romper-clad child of the family. In her sister’s gown, she wows her cousin Kenan, on whom she has been maintaining a fierce crush for years, and who has never really noticed her before. But that evening, worried about her impending nursing career, she has slunk down to the kitchen to have a good wallow over a glass of warm milk in the wee hours when houseguest Lucien wanders in. She spills the truth to him, feeling more honest with him in that moment than she has been with anyone else to date, and he comforts her. Sister Almira, though, isn’t pleased by their friendship: “You just remember: he isn’t for you. Get me?” she warns, because “she had a difficult dictum for other people to accept in comfort: Almira believed in ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine’s my own.’” But as the fiasco that is Christine’s nursing training unfolds, Lucien plays the role of sympathetic friend, allowing her to always be her honest self, telling him about her disinterest in nursing, her fears of failure and disappointing her family. He takes her out for platonic dinners—though it’s not hard to guess his feelings run deeper—and helps her study. “If he found she kept forgetting something or not understanding the subject, he would go patiently over the ground from a different aspect, catching her interest by some little human story. Work with him was a joy.”

Meanwhile, having finally caught the eye of her cousin Kenan at the party, she dates him regularly, keeping his interest by playing the role of a jaded sophisticate, and letting him kiss her out of her wits. After one date, Christine staggers into the dorm to sign in. “She had never been in such a state of turmoil in her life. When Almira had come in from the garden, Christine had always known, from schoolgirl days, that her sister had just been kissed, but Almira had never looked shattered; only like a kitten replete with cream. A little cocky, satisfied for the moment, inclined to smile on everyone. But never like this. ‘Are you all right, my dear?’ Home Sister asked in kindly yet rather anxious tones, and she put up a hand to feel Christine’s forehead.” She’s falling hard, but also wondering if Kenan really cares for her or if he’s just playing with her to keep Almira jealous.

As she pushes on through the term, she starts to find her feet. Walking home from a dinner/study session with Lucien, they are pulled into an accident in which a woman has been crushed under a large piece of furniture. “Her head spun and she knew she hated this sort of job and always would, but she also discovered that she could force herself to do it and not think about it.” And, in the end, she is able to give the police a complete assessment of the situation when Dr. Lucien gives her “the chance to use her brains, to prove to herself that she wasn’t as useless at the job as she imagined, but merely overshadowed by her family.” When it’s all over, he’s rightfully proud: “You’ve a lot of hidden reserves that will rise to help you, in a sticky situation.”

It’s not hard to see where this book is going, but it’s a very pleasant and charming journey. Her dates with Kenan, once you get past the creepiness, are enjoyable for her witty conversation and sweet internal infatuation. She eventually does very well on her exams, after all her hours cramming with Dr. Lucien, which does not surprise. She’s still not sold on nursing as a career but is actually entertaining it as an option as the story winds down—though her ultimate decision is not revealed at book’s end. The characters are interesting and appealing, and the writing is delicious; you really feel Christine’s swoon for Kenan, and the growing relationship between her and Lucien. There’s not a whole lot to this book, and I’m not sure it technically counts as a nurse novel, but it’s a lovely, unique book with a delightful sense of humor, charm, and style.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Two Faces of Nurse Roberts

By Nora Sanderson, ©1963
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

At the age of seventeen Jan Roberts was miserably certain that she was irredeemably ugly. How could she ever be attractive with a disfiguring scar on her cheek? Even when the young medical student Moss Gilding was so charming to her she was convinced he was only acting out of pity. But life changed for Jan when she managed to have the scar removed, and even changed her name to match her new, glamorous face. She decided to take up nursing, and, without admitting even to herself that she might have some ulterior motive, got a job at the same hospital where Moss was now a doctor. And then she discovered that he seemed far less interested in the second Jan than he had been in the first!


“Note the name carefully. You might even decide to use it yourself at some distant date—not too distant, either, I hope.”

When we meet Jan Roberts, she is a 16-year-old farm girl living in the New Zealand outback. She suffered from an “ugly blotch” on her cheek, which she plans to have fixed at some point, but it’s not clear how much this will help since “it wasn’t a lovely face,” “freckled and far too brown.” But as disfiguring as this blemish is, there’s one person—medical student Maurice Gilding, known as Moss, who “was the first one who’d made her face seem unimportant.” Despite his apparent interest, “you wouldn’t have a hope, Jan, not with your face,” says one of her helpful brothers.

She herself sets off for nursing school, and years later as her training is winding down she undergoes surgery to fix her face—and then suddenly she’s a swan, and none of her friends even recognize her when she walks into the room: “Did you ever see anyone so beautiful? Jan, you’re really gorgeous!” Moss’s bitchy cousin, however, tells her that she’s ruined any chance she ever had with Moss, because the only reason he ever dated her was that he, as a child, had inadvertently burned her face and caused the scar—complete news to Jan, inconceivable as that might be—and that Jan’s father had ordered Moss to marry her by way of reparation for ruining her chances of ever finding a man with that horrid face. Jan, completely crushed, believes the whole implausible story but saves face, if  you will, by lying that she cares not a fig for Moss.

With R.N. degree in hand, she’s pulling up at the hospital where she’s about to start working—the same hospital, completely coincidentally, where now Dr. Moss Gilding works—and furthermore, she’s changed her name to Sara Heath. Within minutes, she runs into Moss, who doesn’t recognize her at all—but he seems turned off by the thick makeup she’s obliged to wear to protect the new skin graft. “I’d forgotten I’d plastered myself with all that green eye shadow … No wonder poor Moss was disgusted—no wonder indeed!”

As the weeks pass, “Sara” works alongside Moss and they seem to be getting along fairly well—but Moss is not as friendly as he had been with Jan, and indeed brings up that young woman on a regular basis as an exemplar of all human qualities. Sara spends a fair amount of time resentful of her own self: “I don’t know whether I want Moss to like the old me or the new me best,” she thinks, though apart from the fact that she is who she is now, it’s not clear why she would want him to like a face more than a person. “A quite fantastic jealousy began to stir in Jan’s heart; a ridiculous conflict of emotions involving her old self versus her new self.” The story develops sweetly as Sara slowly recognizes that she is in love with Moss, and she scrutinizes every interaction with him for signs that he might reciprocate—all the while fearing that he will recognize her and be upset at her duplicity, while the reader can’t believe the whole setup or Sara’s idiocy in not being honest with Moss. Eventually the plot winds itself into a tailspin as Sara becomes convinced that Moss is engaged to a young rich widow, and she sets out to push Moss and Shona together to save her from the advances of her own sometime wolf of a boyfriend who has stated that he is going to try to marry Shona for her money. These type of plot twists are almost always tedious and stupid, as the whole ridiculous enterprise hangs on the thin thread of no one’s ever being able to be honest for one second, and though the writing here is mostly good, author Nora Sanderson can’t completely rescue this hackneyed device. It doesn’t take up too much room in the book, though, so we’re not totally sunk by it, and in the end this is a pleasant book deserving of a lazy afternoon.