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.

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