Friday, June 19, 2020

Nurse Angela

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1965

“There’s a contagious disease sweeping the hospital!” Handsome Doctor MacDaniel stood before Nurse Angela. She sprang up, her eyes enormous with shock. “It’s a thing called love,” he added, grinning. Nurse Angela sank back in relief. “It’s the spell of the tropics,” she said. “I hear it’s pretty potent.” He moved closer and took her into his arms. His kiss was like a small, gentle hand curling about her heart. But why was her heart afraid?


“We’d much prefer that men shouldn’t understand us. We’re not a bit complex, but we like to have the masterful sex think so.”

“You couldn’t offer a man a more deadly insult than to tell him he is not your type and that he’s safe with you because there’s no danger of you falling in love with him.”

“I probably won’t ever fall in love with anybody. It’s a very undignified emotion.”

“There was a twinkle in his dark eyes as he turned and walked away toward the men’s ward, where there were four sailors who had been badly burned in an explosion aboard a fishing smack a few days before.”

“You’re doing beautifully, Mr. Abernathy. And we’re going to send you home in another week or ten days.”

As the book opens, Nurse Angela Dennard is arriving in Pirate’s Cove somewhere in the Caribbean to work for two doctors who have hired her for two years based on her resume, without having met or spoken to her in advance. Immediately upon her arrival, it’s clear that there’s going to be a big problem: “Dr. Mac will flip his lid when he sees you,” says the other “nurse” on the team, a young woman named Nancy Galloway, who has no license or formal schooling but was trained by Dr. Mac. “We were expecting a nurse, but not someone as young and beautiful as you are.” Apparently “there’s an unwritten law at the Cove that no woman under fifty who is easy on the eyes—and you most certainly are all of that—should be allowed to set foot on the place.” This is a real predicament!

For the next dozen or so pages, everyone who meets Angela remarks about how gorgeous she is, to the point where our patience has grown more than a little thin. “Perhaps I can wear some sort of disguise that will conceal what you seem to feel is a very disturbing appearance,” she snaps at Dr. Mac, and then performs the Patented Peggy Gaddis Heroine Exit, marching out of the room with her head held high.

Before long, though, everyone’s forgotten about Angela and her troublesome face, and now we swirl around five people on the island: not-nurse Nancy; ferry captain Nelson Phillips, with whom Nancy is in love; 17-year-old debutante Kathleen “Kitten” Hansell, who has been whisked to the island to escape the scandal of her having witnessed a murder in a New York City night club; Burke Abernathy, a 25-year-old society man whom Kitten has lured to the island to keep her company; and Barbara Clayton, a 30-year-old millionaire who owns most of the island and acts as its main benefactress. These characters also quickly wear thin, as Nancy and Barbara are described as plain in appearance and are both insanely insecure, thinking that no man could ever possibly want to be involved with them. Barbara develops a crush on Nelson, though she is “much too old for him,” and she and Nancy have a contest to see who can be the nastiest, the most self-centered, and the most childish. Nancy wins by a fair amount, as she soon develops a raging dislike of Angela when Angela buys Barbara, hospitalized after she was stomped by Champ the bull, a bunch of pastel negligees. Worse yet, Angela fixes Barbara’s hair and introduces her to Nelson, who kindly agrees to take Barbara to town when she asks him if he will—and Nancy construes this as worst kind of betrayal. “You couldn’t have found her things that would make her look drab and plain and downright ugly,” she snarls at Angela. “I purely hate you!” She continues to be quite nasty to Angela for most of the rest of the book, and to “purr acidly” in a jealous rage at Nelson too, which is sure to help her accomplish her goal of winning the man’s heart, which she had just laid out three pages earlier. Good luck with that, honey.

Nelson, for his part, stirs up more trouble when Kitten Hansell’s grandmother hires him to chauffeur Kitten out to a few nearby cities for an afternoon’s entertainment, and Nancy's jealousy spirals even further out of control—as does Barbara’s, who rips off her new nighties and smashes her mirror in a petulant display when she hears of the outing. Nelson also offers to smack, wallop and spank Kitten—another Peggy Gaddis staple—and, bizarrely, her grandmother chimes in, “And I’ll help him.” Kitten, not too surprisingly, tells Gran, “I think I hate you!” Kitten uses her outings with Nelson to enrage Burke, who has also landed in the hospital after being thrown from a bicycle, and though he knows no one else on the island and has come there only to keep Kitten company, that lovely lass refuses to visit him for the rest of his week-long stay in the hospital, and instead tells him that in time “I’ll hate you even a little more than I do now.” All the women in this book have studied exactly the same playbook, not to mention the same script, and it is dull, self-defeating, and infantile.

Out of nowhere, Kitten’s character makes an abrupt about-face. When Burke, finally discharged from the hospital, shows up at the Hansell house, the two women are talking about how much they care about each other, when they’ve been screaming and threatening violence in every other encounter up until now, Kitten hugging her grandmother and calling her sweetie-pie (Gran reasonably responds, “What a disgusting phrase”). A page later, Burke has proposed and Kathleen is pronounced old enough to marry, though I think at under 18 she qualifies as a child bride.

Things finally start to wrap up, much to our relief: Barbara has asked the accounts man to go over the business accounts with her, and the pair hit it off, so she’s quickly disposed of. As for Nancy and Nelson, out of the blue, they are suddenly “hand in hand, obviously very much in love and radiantly happy” on their way to announce their engagement, no doubt because the last thing Nancy had said to Nelson before this turn of events is announced, was—take one guess—“I think I hate you!”

Angela, meanwhile, a minor character in the book that bears her name, has had a few short but snippy conversations with Dr. Mac, which end either with her marching off in anger—head held high, of course—or she is warning “her silly heart to stop its pounding.” We don’t even learn the man’s first name until page 80. So you know what is coming: In what is their seventh actual conversation together—most of which have been under a page—Dr. Mac proposes to Angela. Well, I must admit that they did have dinner together one night, but they spent most of it talking to other people and not to each other, so that doesn’t really count. Angela responds to his kind offer by telling him, “You’ve been treating me like a piece of office equipment or X-ray machinery,” but “after all your arrogance and brusqueness of these past weeks,” it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, so after a page of de riguer sniping back and forth, she agrees, and his kiss “was like a small, gentle hand curling about her heart and lifting it to her lips.” She’s kissing her own heart? What? It’s a bizarre ending, but after everything we’ve been through with this book, par for the awkward course.

Apart from everything I’ve cited above, there are even more oddities to the book. Author Gaddis throws a gossip columnist into the story early on, the woman arriving at the island to stir up more scandal about Kitten, but she abruptly drops out of the story halfway through, never to be seen again.  There’s also a scene between island local Lisa Morales, who works as a nurse’s aide, drooling with joy at her chance to care for “our patron saint.” Lisa reveals that the Father at their church has cut Barbara’s photo out of a newspaper and hung it up, and the parishioners burn candles and keep flowers before it in their reverence of Barbara, who once bought a bell for the church. In response to what is to say the least a very uncomfortable encounter, at least for us the readers, Barbara does not die of horror and shame, but instead offers Lisa “a real picture, the very best one I can possibly manage,” for them to continue worshipping. I think this qualifies as requiring a donation to the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in penance.

The book hums along steadily and the writing mostly isn’t bad, but there are just so many psychotic characters in this story—women predominantly, but the men don’t prove too sane, either—that it’s a good thing they’re all stuck on this tiny island in the Caribbean, because it would not be a good idea to turn them loose on general society.

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