Monday, March 14, 2022

Sisters in White

By Suzanne Roberts, ©1965 

Seeing Vicki and Nicki Evans striding down hospital corridors together in their crisp, white uniforms and perky caps, people always did a double take. The nurses looked exactly alike—they were identical twins. Which made for a certain amount of fun around Community Hospital. Fun for everybody but Vicki. For Vicki was the dedicated and hard-working one, whereas her carefree and vivacious sister had never failed to capture the heart of any man she wanted. And now she had set her cap for Vicki’s special man. This meant trouble—in this case, double trouble.


“Any girl who would wear a red satin bouffant dress with three sequined petticoats just wasn’t the kind of girl who’d be happy emptying bed pans.” 

“I’m not supposed to be safe. I’m a nurse—remember?”

If you are unlucky enough to remember those horrible Wrigley’s Doublemint gum commercials with the vapid blonde twins masticating in unison, the cover illustration and back cover blurb of this book may revive some nauseating memories. Certainly author Suzanne Roberts, who has until now earned only C grades, doesn’t make a reader feel confident that anything other than a saccharine, stereotypical blandness awaits. But while I won’t promise you double your pleasure or double your fun with the Evans twins, I can say it’s not half bad. 

Vicki Evans is the dedicated one, Assistant to the Ward Supervisor at Chicago Community Hospital. She’s so serious that little student nurses tremble when she approaches—but worse than that, she never gets any dates! “I worry about you, Vicki,” her spinster boss declares. “It’s one thing to be a dedicated nurse, but quite another to make nursing your entire life. You need to get out more!” But there’s only one man for Vicki, and that’s similarly serious Dr. Keith Bryan. So serious is he, in fact, that “the only time Keith really seemed deeply interested in people was when they were sick.” She asks herself that age-old question, “Why can’t he ever see me as anything but an efficient machine?”

The trouble really begins when Vicki’s sister, who had to be named Nicki (go ahead and roll your eyes, you’ll feel better), shows up. She’d managed, somehow, to become a registered nurse too, but had quit upon graduation to be a flight attendant—maybe because she’s so, well, flighty. “‘Go ahead and get all the A’s,’ Nicki had once said good-naturedly. ‘I’ll settle for the B’s, honey. As long as B stands for boyfriend!’” Nicki is running away from a man who’d lost interest and has decided to go back to nursing. Well, maybe. “They surely wouldn’t put me on a ward that was—terribly depressing, would they?” she asks. And because she’s cute and blonde and vivacious, and because she bats her eyes at Dr. Keith, they don’t; she ends up working under Vicki, and never mind how inappropriate that may be. Immediately Nicki shows her true colors by never showing up on time, by dropping a pair of sterile gloves on the floor and then handing them to a doctor to be used in surgery, by taking two-hour breaks, by lying to everyone about that time she saved all those people when her plane crashed. And she starts chasing Dr. Keith.

This is where we’re supposed to hate Nicki for stealing the only man her sister could ever love, but in truth we can’t blame her—because Vicki, the dope, never tells Nicki how she feels about Keith. “She was determined not to let Nicole know that she had a crush on Keith. Because once a man decided to fall in love with Nicole, there was usually no stopping him.” It seems clear that Nicki and Keith are not right for each other, even if Nicki knows better than to wear her red dress and her jazzy jewelry on a date with him, because the goal is to just land a man, not to get one you might actually be happy with. But as he dates Nicki, he and Vicki keep exchanging these long, meaningful glances, when “that quick, electric, breathtaking spark seemed to flow between them,” until Nicki interrupts the moment.

And here’s another instance where we can’t hate Nicki: When Vicki, finally sick of Nicki’s ineptitude, tells her she shouldn’t be a nurse, Nicki flings herself at her sister’s feet. “‘I’m going to change,’ she said, her voice firm. ‘It’s more than just wanting to prove to you that I can be a good nurse. It’s trying hard to do what’s best for the patients. I want that to be my big reason for being a good nurse.’” And though she does continue to make stupid mistakes, she seems to be genuinely trying, reading a few medical journals (though two is all she can manage) and fretting, “Maybe you won’t believe this, Vicki, but it’s terribly important to me. Nursing, I mean. I know you and maybe a lot of other people think I’m an addle-brained somebody and only fit to serve coffee on jet planes, but now that I’m here at Community, I want to be the kind of nurse that you are.” And, when she’s transferred to work in surgery, the toughest ward in the hospital, and after three weeks, she is improving so much that even Vicki has to admit that Nicki is doing well: “I watched you when you assisted the resident in brain surgery today. You were just great. Time was when you’d have fainted dead away.” Retaining consciousness is a low bar, but Nicki is finally accomplishing something!

The problem is that Nicki is a slow learner, though when you think about it, it’s a lot more realistic that she isn’t immediately able to change her personality overnight. And when she “goofs,” as she calls it, she begs Vicki to bail her out. Initially Vicki resists, refusing to cover for Nicki when she’s late for work, but then she takes responsibility when Nicki drops a tray full of medication and doesn’t tell anyone, so the med count is off at the end of the shift. And in a fateful scene we are amply warned is coming (“neither of them had the slightest hint of the horror that was going to come”), Nicki leaves a postop patient for five minutes to freshen her lipstick because she knows Dr. Keith will be coming up to see the patient soon, and Vicki walks in to find the man hemorrhaging from a “gaping wound” unbelievably left after a lung surgery. Nicki again pleads with her sister to save her: “They’ll probably fire me. Please don’t let them do that to me! I was just beginning to be a really good nurse; you said that yourself. I don’t want to lose everything and if you just cover for me,” she cries. “Tell them you told me I could leave. Please help me! I swear to you I’ve learned my lesson, Vicki! I know now how much nursing really means to me.” Vicki, stupidly, agrees, saying, “I won’t cover for you again, Nicki. Not ever.” Which is what she said after the dropped medication incident, but never mind about that.

So she lies to Keith—and believing her capable of this gross error of conduct, he cancels what would have been their first date. Interestingly, no one else in the hospital thinks it’s true—a student nurse stops her in the hall to says she doesn’t believe it, and Vicki’s friend Dr. Bixby also immediately sees the truth and interviews the patient, who identifies Nicki by her perfume and her singing—neither of which Vicki would ever bring into a patient’s room. Vicki tries to cheer up Nicki, saying, “You’ve got to go on believing that you’re a good nurse. You’ve got to hang onto that dream, because nursing could be the most beautiful and important thing in your life,” and adds that they’ll go to Keith in the morning to tell him the truth. In the morning, though, Nicki has packed her bags and run, nobly first stopping at the hospital to leave a note for Keith confessing all. Discovering this when she wakes, Vicki puts in a full day at the hospital, and then she decides to try to find Nicki at O’Hare. The airport was not as busy in 1965 as it is now—well, before Covid, anyway; adorably, it takes her ten minutes to search every ladies’ bathroom in the airport, and more than eight hours after leaving Vicki’s apartment, Nicki’s plane still has not taken off, so when Vicki finally catches up with her, they have time to argue in a coffee shop—until that plane crashes just outside them on the tarmac.

It's an interesting book because at least Nicki shows real growth as a character, even if she remains a flawed individual despite her apparently sincere efforts to improve, which make it a more complex story than most. Vicki, unfortunately, is interesting only in that she seems to diminish as her sister grows—she makes only one small effort to be friendly to Keith, and despite what everyone believes about her character, she still lies for her sister on two occasions. There is real humor in the book, such as when a resident tells Vicki as they sit down for dinner at the diner, “Don’t order any cream pie. I pumped out three stomachs last night and they all—” Suzanne Roberts, in the eighth book of hers we’ve read, has finally served us a cream pie we might actually want to eat.

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