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.

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