Doctor Warren Geyer desperately needed money to help him carry out the research project that was so dear to his heart, and the rick businessman Rory McMurtry was willing to supply it. But Mr. McMurtrey had a beautiful daughter who was interested in Doctor Geyer. Were there going to be awkward conditions attached?
“Rory had never had much patience with what he termed ‘serviceable women,’ no matter how clever and competent they might be. He liked women to be decorative, and when they were he could forgive much.”
“Engagements are like promises and pie-crusts, made to be broken! Most marriages can be wrecked, if only one thinks about it a little. It shouldn’t be difficult!”
Nurse Hilary Oakworth is “about the best and most enthusiastic staff nurse in the whole hospital,” “friendly, helpful … a crisp, competent young woman.” Unfortunately, however, she has two major burdens to carry: One is that her twin brother, Robert, had been apparently paralyzed in an accident in which, saving a child from being hit by a car, he was struck himself. There’s a surgeon in Austria, though, who has cured cases such as Robert’s, and Hilary is working like a dog, denying herself even such essentials as talcum powder and bath oil to save “even the odd sixpence” to finance Robert’s trip and treatment. The end result of this scrimping is that Hilary holds herself aloof from the other nurses so as not to be tempted by the spontaneous outing to the movies, which makes the other nurses think “Hilary’s made of a cardboard heart.”
Our heroine’s other handicap is that she’s in love with Dr. Warren Geyer, “a man totally immersed in whatever it was which he worked at during every free moment in the laboratories of the hospital.” This in itself is a glaring warning sign—every VNRN aficionado knows that lab men are a cold, uncaring breed usually in possession of the emotional range of a turnip. Dr. Geyer asks Hilary out for coffee to discuss the book’s eponymous project, singling her out because “you don’t seem to gad about with the rest of the nursing staff very much, or indeed with anyone. You seem to live for your work, to mind your own business. To do what you can for your patients and leave it at that.” To behave, in short, exactly as Dr. Geyer does himself. “ ‘You make me sound all kinds of prig!’ Hilary protested, her color rising.” If a description that very accurately describes the man she’s in love with is so appalling to her, I do feel compelled to wonder why she’s attracted to him. She’s not alone in her feeling, though, as apparently half the nursing staff as well as one wealthy young volunteer, Francine MacMurtrey, are similarly smitten: “He always makes me want to take care of him! He seems so busy caring for everyone else that he doesn’t have time left over to bother much about himself. I think he needs someone to take an interest him,” Francine declares, bewilderingly believing that person to be her.
Dr. Geyer’s plan is to establish a research lab that will grow food without water or soil, and to create a diet based on these crops that will allow astronauts to be self-sufficient in space. He wants Francine’s businessman father Rory to fund his project, but is afraid that to seal the deal he will be forced to forge a more permanent partnership with the love-struck Francine. Hilary’s answer to this problem is that he should pretend to be engaged to her—and even get married if need be—to throw her off. In return, Dr. Geyer will pay for Robert’s surgery. Surprisingly, Dr. Geyer agrees to this scheme, though it’s not clear why marriage to Hilary would be preferable to marriage to Francine, and the plan goes off without a hitch.
Everything at the new clinic is progressing well, apart from the astronauts’ propensity to break out in rashes from their experimental diet. Hilary’s brother moves in to benefit from some buffing up before his surgery, and Francine’s disappointment in losing Dr. Geyer evaporates the minute she claps eyes on the handsome—and coincidentally even more helpless—Robert. “It drew her very heart-throb from her body. Never, she knew, had she felt like this in her life before. Never, she felt, would she feel like this about anyone else, no matter how long she lived or what happened to her.” So Dr. Geyer’s half of his bargain with Hilary turns out to have been completely unnecessary. Rather than break off their sham engagement, however, Dr. Geyer instead gets pissy when a visiting doctor pays a little too much attention to Hilary. Accusing her of leading the doctor on and telling her that she’s making a fool out of herself for a man who is bound to dump her in the end, Dr. Geyer simultaneously infuriates Hilary and drops a few telling remarks about their bargain, which are overheard by Francine. Rushing to spill the beans to Robert under the impression that he will find this good news, she finds instead that Robert decides to refuse to have the surgery, bought as it is with money from the sale of his sister. When Hilary learns of Robert’s plan to quit the hospital immediately, she follows suit and tenders her resignation from both Dr. Geyer’s clinic and engagement.
With this shocking surprise before him, Dr. Geyer has a Dr. Higgins moment when he realizes that he’s grown accustomed to Hilary’s face, in the flattering fashion of self-absorbed emotionally challenged men. “She must be a very important person indeed in my life,” he thinks, and logically reasons that his upset at Hilary’s impending departure must mean he cares for her. Rushing to find her packing, he tells her, “Until today I’ve never thought of love except to tell myself it was a biological urge, something to while the time,” concluding, “I must love you.” Nothing else matters more than she does, he decides, except helping Robert, because he’s her brother—and this last is what brings Hilary to his arms.
The story is fairly perfunctory but not unpleasant. Hilary is a strong, capable woman, but her unswerving devotion to Dr. Geyer is never understandable to the reader. Clearly a longstanding theme in nurse novels and indeed in life is the one about the elusive man whom everyone wants falling for only you, but frequently the problem in VNRNs is that these unavailable men are seldom shy or insecure—forgiveable offenses—but are just completely devoid of emotion, making them completely unattractive to anyone with a shred of self-respect or confidence. This book is guilty of that sin, making the entire premise utterly baffling. The best reasons for reading this book are Hilary and Francine, and if it’s not the most compelling book, it’s perfectly serviceable.