Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nurse Jess

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1959

Margaret South was the most efficient, most dedicated nurse at the Lady Belinda Hospital for Specialized Nursing of Premature Babies. Professor Gink was the most dedicated, most celebrated authority on baby-care in Australia. To Jess they seemed an ideally suited couple, and she began to plot accordingly. And then, far too late it seemed, she discovered that she had fallen in love with the Professor herself.



Nurse Jessamine Barlow has such a mouthful of a name that when she gets to her fellowship after graduating from nursing school she is shortened to Jess. She hails from a remote island that is on the brink of transforming into a tourist mecca, and her parents, who run a small hotel, are expanding to meet the boom, though everyone has mixed feelings about it, including the native staff, who have gone on walkabout, what native Australians apparently call a long hiking holiday, with no definite date of return.

At her hospital, Jess is learning all about premature babies and how to care for them, which means hardly ever touching them and feeding them formula and not breastmilk. Some of her patients die quietly offscreen; she comes back to their cribs to find them empty. It’s difficult work, and she naturally feels like a failure, especially compared to her best friend from nursing school who is also on the same fellowship, Margaret South. Early on Jess meets Professor Dr. Gink, whom she mistakes for a parent, and offers him lots of helpful, naïve advice, and is later mortified when she realizes her mistake—though the professor seems charmed by her outgoing, easy manner. Naturally Jess decides that Margaret should marry Professor Gink, even though neither has expressed any interest of that sort in the other, and nor does she bother to enlighten her best friend about her schemes. So it’s a peculiar hook to hang the book on.

Of course, it’s clear to the reader that she likes the doctor and he, her. We can be somewhat relieved that it’s actually only two-thirds of the book in that Jess realizes her own feelings, but still she remains blind to his obvious reciprocal interest. VNRN heroines are not infrequently the dumbest characters in the book, years of medical training notwithstanding, and it’s an irritating gimmick.

Most of the book’s plot follows Jess’s adventures in nursing, including flying to the outback to nurse quintuplets with Professor Gink (we only learn his first name, Bartholomew, five pages from the end) and leading tours of her island’s volcano, which figures prominently in the rescuing of the island from the tourist hordes. We watch Margaret fall for Jess’s friend Barry, who had been pining from unrequited love for Jess until he met Margaret, and dumb Jess can’t see that obvious romance either. That foible again underlined, overall I can’t dislike this essentially charming book, which offers interesting writing and mild humor even if the characters outside the main pair are not deeply drawn. If not especially sophisticated, Nurse Jess is a simple pleasure, much like her title character.


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