By Elizabeth Houghton, ©1964
At home, Karen was
very much in the background, coming a poor second to her glamourous half-sister
Celia, but in her work as part-time nurse in a home for old people, she was
loved by all her patients, and she found a good friend in Simon Guthrie, the
consultant physician. And then Simon met Celia. Would the inevitable happen?
“Love isn’t just a one-way street. Parents have to earn it as well as their children.”
It’s really an insurmountable problem when the heroine of your book is unlikeable. Is the author so out of touch that she can’t understand what qualities the reader will find admirable? There must be a few books I’ve liked despite its heroine, and in these situations a generous reader might believe that the author, for some unknown reason of her own, chose to write a dislikeable heroine while assembling a more interesting supporting cast and story line. A better option would be to create a heroine who starts out badly but improves through personal growth, but these, too, are rare. This book, unfortunately, is neither of these. Here we have the milquetoast Karen Shelley, not aided by the modern meme imposed on her first name, who is several times referred to as a Cinderella who has given up her hospital nursing job to care for her aged, invalid mother—a woman in her mid-50s who’d had “a heavy cold and threatened pneumonia” that “was brought under control with drugs in a few days” and now, months or possibly years later, mother is still not allowed to leave the house by her physician, and Karen is obliged to spend every waking hour waiting on the “whining invalid,” a mean and ungrateful woman who runs Karen down as much as she spoils Karen’s younger half-sister Celia, who contributes neither labor nor money to the family but insists Karen be home at 9:00 am to wake her up for her job as a receptionist for a real estate firm.
Through what may be divine intervention, given the thin eye of a needle she is threading, Karen finds a job at Langdale Place, an old folks’ home that needs her only between 7:00 and 9:00 am—and ever-grateful mum is peeved both that Karen is not starting sooner because they need the money and also because Karen will be out of the house when she’s usually bringing in breakfast on a tray: “I suppose I’ll have to manage,” mother says “grudgingly”—and never mind that Celia would be at home and could get breakfast for her if she’s unable to do for herself, though it’s difficult to see why she can’t.
All this mistreatment has left Karen beaten down: “She had learned long ago not to heed the defensive urge to talk back.” She’s horrifically spineless, absorbing direct and implied insults from her family without a word, but curiously, in her first encounters with Dr. Simon Guthrie, who oversees the Langdale Place residents, she slams out of his car before he’s even started the motor because he’d asked her if she was sure she wanted to work with geriatrics—and then she freaks out for the next five pages that he’s going to fire her the next time he sees her.
Bizarrely, Simon seems interested in Karen though her minimal hours mean they never cross paths, and she’s such a pansy that she is blushing almost constantly in the first pages. But maybe that’s what he likes, as he swoops in and, without discussing it with her, frees her mother from the doctor’s orders that have kept her indoors, offers mom a job at Langdale Place, and tells Karen that she’ll now be working full-time, so less than halfway through the book its title is no longer applicable. Karen is so grateful to be liberated from her prison that she fights him at every turn, even concluding pathetically, “Celia will never wake up without me there!” (Simon reminds her of this handy invention called an alarm clock, and Karen reluctantly goes along with his plan, but only because she’s sure mum will refuse to take the job at Langdale Place. She doesn’t.)
The plot next turns on a real estate deal that threatens the building Langdale Place occupies, but coincidentally Celia works for the financier behind the deal, apparently doing more than just answering the phone, as she’s spotted in clubs and limos in cocktail dresses and mink coats accompanied by old men with “dark greedy eyes” “licking his lips,” disappearing with her suitcase apparently en route to Paris with her boss but turning up at home in the morning, her dress ripped, and her sometime boyfriend Barry worrying that Celia is “getting mixed up with something nasty” as Karen thinks of “white girls kidnapped for Moroccan night clubs”—but no one ever bothers to ask Celia what’s going on.
Simon at least plays true to character and organizes a plot that he never explains to Karen even as it’s unfolding, in which Celia uses her influence on her boss—though it’s not clear how, as Langdale Place is ultimately torn down—and is “taken” by her boss’s gang for the evening, all very murky and never explained. In the end, the most we hear is that Celia has “decided to forget it ever happened. It’s the best way.” Oh, OK.
There are happy endings for all in the end, and Karen wins a prize at work, though we’re not sure why, since all she seemed to do was submit everyone else’s ideas for the new home that’s to be built when the current building is torn down. This is the book’s most consistent problem, that Karen is a spineless cipher to whom good things are given after her term of suffering, for little apparent effort or merit of her own. I do wonder whether a Cinderella can really be a likable personality—if you have willingly subverted your wishes for your own life, are you likely to be interesting when set free, particularly if you played no role in obtaining your freedom? Karen is not a character we root for, and so her liberation is meaningless to us, and we have no regrets when we close the book on her, apart from the hours wasted in her insipid company.