Thursday, July 28, 2022

Nurse Lister’s Millstone

By Marjorie Norrell, ©1968

Elizabeth Lister had unexpectedly inherited an immense fortune—but, far from making her happy, it only had the effect of becoming a millstone round her neck!


“Don’t let all the good times slip past your fingers, child. When you get to my age you can catch up on all the chores of living.” 

“Most Americans like to tour around a lot and see as much as possible in the shortest possible time, a few historic old ruins, places of literary interest and some very beautiful scenery.”

“Never act foolishly and pretend a compliment means nothing to you. Accept it as graciously as you would a gift of flowers or chocolates. Don’t give way to that foolish habit of disparaging yourself, just because you think it’s the right thing to do. Such an attitude only embarrasses the giver of compliment or gift.”

Elizabeth Lister is an extraordinary nurse. She is so dedicated to her work that when her Uncle Harry unexpectedly leaves her $250,000—apparently a staggering fortune and not just a drop in the bucket toward your kids’ college educations—instead of quitting her job and enjoying the “lolly,” she continues to work, and considers how she might use her inheritance to “accomplish much to help mankind.” (It is curious, and perhaps due to a British sensibility, that leads almost everyone to conclude that Elizabeth is going to give away a substantial portion of her fortune.) Unfortunately, as soon as her friends hear about her good luck, they immediately shun her, “as though I’d some infectious complaint and they were afraid of catching it!”

The answer to this problem is, of course, for her to take a new job far away from her current situation, where no one knows about this “millstone,” which is how she refers to her money. There she meets Dr. Frank Tyler, who believes—the silly man—that “emotional involvement of any kind was definitely out so far as he was concerned for some years to come.” He’s planning on going into research, investigating leukemia, and has plans to apply for a grant from a pharmaceutical company, though that would mean all his discoveries would become the company’s property, to be sold for a profit. Elizabeth quickly decides she will use her money to build a clinic with a lab for the hot young doctor, no .

When he hears about this plan, Frank is overjoyed and deeply grateful! Oh, actually, no, I lied—in true VNRN fashion, he is outraged and cuts off their budding romance with little explanation, only later explaining, “I want to get to the top. But I aim to get there under my own steam.” It’s a ridiculous attitude, of course, because what is the grant that he is hoping to win but a gift? And isn’t every person’s success dependent on others—teachers, advisors, investors—who helped along the way? He compounds his hypocrisy by adding, “If you’d been anyone else, I might have accepted.” Elizabeth’s best friend points out that “he’s think himself doing the right thing, I suppose, if something horrible had happened and you’d asked him to share that!” These men can be so stupid, you wonder why you bother.

But it turns out that it doesn’t take long to convince Frank to accept the plan, though it still means they can’t be together, even though he loves her, but because he does not have “even a remote hope of being able to give you things, wealth, position equal to those you now have in your own right.” What a sexist snob!

The second half of the book is Elizabeth’s persistent efforts to win Frank over, which you know are preordained to succeed, though it takes the quintessential car crash combined with the old jealousy ploy to bring him around. The book is a pleasant read, even if it hinges on this ludicrous plot device. The characters are enjoyable, if not anyone I’d care to spend any extra time with. You could do worse, and it won’t be a complete waste of time, but it is likely to pass out of your head about as quickly as the money would have slipped out of your bank account if you had been the recipient of Nurse Lister’s fortune.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Park Avenue Nurse

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1956
Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi

Handsome Jick Ainsley called Pam a “de luxe model nurse,” and even Pamela’s best friend Helen thought her too blonde, too pretty … even for a Park Avenue doctor’s office. Pam herself did not know. She had kept the small town values her Aunt Cora taught her, was good at her job, and Park Avenue was not really so glamorous until Dewa, the Indian prince, came along and taught her the words to the Indian song “… for my love will be like a wreath of flowers …” Then Pamela felt her life begin to change.





“With those classical features, that smooth blonde hair, and your perfect size-twelve figure, you look exactly as a nurse should look.”


“What women won’t fall for! It can be as thick as a London fog but if it comes from a man, they can’t see through it.”


“Pamela did not consider ‘to ooze’ an especially pleasing attribute. She knew, however, that this was high praise, coming from Helen.”


“No man, no matter what his nationality, wants a woman to be smarter than he is.”


“It might seem bold for her to be the only woman waltzing.”


“She believed that when you live in a world that might at any moment be blown to extinction, it is well to get to know and understand peoples of every country.”


“I like a woman with spirit—reminds me of a spirited horse. I’m very fond of horses.”



Pamela Scott is a nurse working on—you guessed it!—Park Avenue, in what appears to be a primary care office, one that “had been done by one of the best interior decorators,” with thick carpets and a subdued color palette. It’s the sort of practice that Pamela’s Aunt Cora—with whom we are frequently brandished but never actually introduced—would disapprove of, because “Aunt Cora’s idea of a nurse was strictly Florence Nightingale tradition. A lamp in the hand; a smile of compassion for the sick and dying; an unswerving devotion to duty.” Aside from the lamp, though, it’s not clear that Pamela’s present job doesn’t hit those criteria, so we’re left to conclude that Aunt Cora is a snob who doesn’t like rich people.


She’s not alone; Pam soon meets a man unfortunately named Jick Ainsley, who annoys Pam first by chatting her up at a lunch counter, then—more legitimately—by tracking her down at her office and making friends with the elderly secretary so as to pump her for information about Pam. He, too, comes from humble country beginnings and sneers that she would “work in a sham showplace like this, when she could be earning her salt as a real nurse.” Naturally, Pam finds him very irritating, thinking of him constantly and wishing he’d turn up so she could insult him some more.


Meanwhile, there’s an old friend from home who shows up and embarrasses Pam by acting the bumpkin at a French restaurant, talking too loudly and complaining that the food: “Whatever it is, it tastes okay, but it sure is rich!” He tells Pam with regret that living in New York City has changed her, and she agrees—though it’s not clear she shares his regret, because she appreciates the menu, and besides, “Pamela had become a part of New York, not only in her living and her work, but in her heart and mind. She could never go back to being the simple girl she had been, content with simple pleasures. She had outgrown them.”


At the other end of the spectrum is Dewa Christian, a prince from India, who is westernized enough after his Oxford education for Pam to consider as a potential boyfriend. He certainly considers her, inviting her out to his Connecticut country estate to meet his family and his cousin, whom he’s supposed to marry, according to his uncle, who takes Pamela aside to give her friendly hints like advising her that “my nephew’s horoscope and that of his cousin match perfectly.”


Jick turns up again, scaring Pamela by following her home and refusing to take his foot out of the doorjamb until she lets him in. After this charming behavior, she naturally warms to him, and he ups the ante by telling her he’s arranged a weekend getaway, and has already sent a telegram to Aunt Cora to let them know they’re coming, without discussing it with her first. She’s livid—because she already has plans with Dewa and can’t go. When he tells the office secretary, “I intend to change her name to Mrs. Jick Ainsley,” she’s even more pleased—and announces her intention to quit her job and take a poorhouse job he’d been pushing on her.


This book has a lot of problems, chiefly that it wants to have everything both ways. The attitude about Dewa’s family is not completely bigoted, and Pam professes interest in the culture—which is usually respectfully described—but the cousin is depicted as an intellectual fighting for women’s rights in India who “did not raise her eyes, but continued to gaze down upon her hands, folded in a sort of symbolic submission in her lap.” Pam’s bucolic upbringing, and Aunt Cora’s traditional Church-going values, are held up as holy, but New York is frequently described lovingly, and Pam feels that she has outgrown the lifestyle she was raised in. It’s not clear why Pam took the Park Avenue job at all, what’s wrong with it besides the fact that the patients are presumably wealthy, or why she decides to leave it in the end for a job in the poor part of the city. Pam is supposed to be an independent, strong woman, but she chooses a man who essentially stalks and domineers her, which I find hard to believe any woman, even one reading this book when it was published in 1956, would find attractive. It’s not badly written, but these fundamental flaws make it irritating enough to ultimately make Park Avenue Nurse far less desirable than its address.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Nurse Sally’s Last Chance

By Anne Durham, ©1967 

Sally Marston had been in continuous hot water for a long time, until in desperation her family persuaded her to take up nursing as a last chance to settle down. But what made any of them imagine that that would keep Sally out of trouble?


“Most girls go all round the world to get at what they want to say, and after one has found out, one is too tired to care.” 

“Tea was a meal that saved one from getting irritable in the arid length of hours between lunch and the evening meal. It was sacrilege not to make the most of it.”

“Number Fifteen has just slopped over herself her new bottle of orange squash and the other dimwit who came with you is making heavy weather of mopping up. Go and see how much you can add to the confusion.”

Right out of the gate I could not help but like Sally Marston—who is not a nurse; at book’s end she has only just finished the preliminary probationary period in the first weeks of nursing school. When we meet her, she has volunteered to wash the dishes even though she loathes the job and is ferociously attacking the chore: “If you were doing something noisy and useful like washing up, she told herself grimly, the chances were that people would leave you alone.” At 19, she already has a rather dismal career: She’d been tossed from boarding school after sneaking out for a late date with smooth operator Frank Sandford, more than a decade her senior, and “that clot of the girl who shared her room had forgotten to open the window and Sally had been caught.” From there she had lurched into a job at a stable she abruptly quit, then to one at a hotel that had also ended disastrously, so now she is skulking around the house feeling at loose ends.

Dr. Bruce Carmichael, the town GP, “is so good-looking it oozes out of his ears—and doesn’t he know it! He’s so pleased with himself, you can sense at, even from his back view!” He is caring for her parents: Her mother was injured in a train wreck that occurred while she was on her way to attempt to soothe Sally’s mishaps, and her father has some unspecified cardiac issues, inferred to be caused by worry about his wife, so she feels responsible for both her parents’ health concerns. Dr. Bruce also takes it upon himself to suggest that Sally become a nurse, her “last chance” of landing a decent career after her early spectacular debacles, though the details of these fiascos are slow in coming and in fact impossible for the reader to guess—quite the rarity in a VNRN. Sally agrees to go, because she does not want to burden her parents further, and he pulls some strings to get her into a training program. Fabulous Sally is not exactly grateful: “Who does he think he is, to talk to me like that? Honestly, he expects that I shall be thrown out! I’m going to stay here and I’m going to qualify, just to show him! If it’s the last thing I do, I’m sticking it out to the bitter end.”

Of course, Sally runs into none other than the cad Frank in town, who takes up where he abruptly left off after ghosting her a year ago, feeding her a convoluted story about a concussion and lost addresses, etc. etc. But “she was sick and silly over him, though she knew he was no good,” and after sneaking out late to see him her first week, she’s locked out of the dorm again—clearly having learned nothing from boarding school—but nice Dr. John Weaver rescues her and get her safely back inside. It’s not long before Frank stands her up again—and again Dr. Weaver is on hand to tuck her into his car and buy her a jolly lunch at a charming country inn.

Gradually the plot threads of her earlier mishaps uncurl, and extend grasping tendrils to try to wrap her up tight again. The fun is digging layer by layer into the complicated mess, slowly unearthing more clues that still don’t make the end obvious—but it must be confessed that when all was finally revealed, I didn’t entirely follow the whole plot. As the story trots briskly along, we watch Sally interact with the three men in her life, always entranced by Frank, bounder that he is; irritated by well-meaning Dr. Carmichael; and pleased by Dr. Weaver. She has a good friend in roomie Cerise Oldham, who is unfortunately not the witty, interesting stereotype, but a friend is a friend regardless. The writing is occasionally humorous—every letter Sally chucks at Cerise to read ends up skidding under the dresser, for example—and Sally is an interesting and entertaining character to spend 188 pages with, which is a long length of time to keep this reader engaged. If in the end her romantic choice is rather obvious, this is the only straightforward aspect of the book, which makes it an excellent chance that you will thoroughly enjoy Nurse Sally’s Last Chance as much as I did.

Monday, July 4, 2022

The Hospital World of Susan Wray

By Anne Lorraine ©1965 

Susan became aware that the doctor was watching her. He leaned back in his chair, studying her small office, the bookshelves laden with medical books, and, slightly incongruous amongst such technical matter, a row of brightly covered detective novels. He noted the vase of flowers on the mantel, the only apparent concession to feminine love of decoration. “It’s a good room,” he told her suddenly, unexpectedly. “A good place in which to forget hospital existed. It’s like an oasis, right in the heart of suffering and fear. It reminds me somehow of you, sister. There is something strong, unshakable, a quiet serenity about it, such as you carry with you in your work.” Susan stared at him, her eyes dark with surprise. This—the moody, intractable Dr. More? He had always seemed oblivious of her presence, yet evidently such had not been the case. She felt confused and embarrassed at his words. Thus begins to story of a nurse and doctor whose personal and professional lives are to merge.


“Young folk are afraid of truth, because it hurts, it hurts like the devil. It’s only when you’re old and tired, like me, that you know it’s the only decent thing in the world—is truth. You learn to love it, then, you let it stick into your heart, and you don’t even feel the pain.” 

“‘Want to hear about the abscess now?’ he inquired, and she forced a look of interest into her face.”

“We demand so much from life—we expect to marked off our minds into little water-tight compartments—this much for my work, this much for my love, this much for the world in general—we get hurt and upset when we discover that our minds are not water-tight, any more than are our emotions.”

“So many of you doctors approach the patient in the same way as a butcher would approach a delectable carcass, and with about as much visible feeling!”

Susan Wray begins her book with two common tropes around her neck: (1) Her fiancĂ© Jimmie Preston is paralyzed from a car crash, and (2) her younger sister Dinah is a flighty, undedicated nurse working under her supervision at a small English country Hospital. Susan herself is an outstanding nurse, with “a bottomless well of human understanding and tolerance,” loved by patiens and nursing students alike, who speaks “quietly,” “serenely,” “imperturbably,” “softly,” “carefully,” “gently,” or “calmly” on every page. She is incomprehensibly devoted to Jimmie, whom she visits without fail for a couple hours every week, when she begs him to marry her, and he refuses. “I wanted to devote my life to him, to work day and night to bring health and strength back to him,” she explains to a patient. “I could make him well.” But Jimmie refuses to marry until he can walk again, per usual. 

Sister Dinah became a nurse only after their parents died and Susan, it seems, forced her to, but she hates it! Then up turns the mysterious Dr. David Wright, exiled to their back-water hospital because of some terrible mistake he’s made. “I she’ll never touch a knife again as long as I live,” declares the once-famous brain surgeon, and one assumes he won’t be ordering anything less than fillet mignon for dinner, less it be too tough for his fork to handle. In his presence, however, Dinah goes to pieces, and David also pales—and it takes a while for their secret to out: They once worked together, and he had a tricky postop patient whom he left in her care—but she had a date and ran down to the nurse’s station to ask if someone to cover for her, and the patient died in the five minutes she was out of the room. The patient’s unattended death was such a scandal that Dr. Wright was sent packing—a ludicrously implausible story, not improved by Dinah’s eventual confession that she’d been asked to monitor the patient, which somehow completely exonerates Dr. Wright and gets him his old job back.

Enter trope #3: We meet Dr. Jonathan More, who is an amazing physician but who is always irritated; Susan calls them “the most cynical, work-absorbed, uninteresting, dull man.” Despite her vows to have as little to do with him as possible, you will not be shocked to discover the cold automaton is soon feverishly clasping her hands and declaring in a hoarse whisper, “It’s you I love, understand?” But after their passionate embrace in the garden, he reveals he is married! Who will Susan and up with in the end?

In the interim, there is the story of a woman OB, Dr. Teresa Drake, who thinks her husband has fathered an illegitimate child and who agrees to adopt a baby based on the village gossip, bizarrely deciding never to ask her husband if the rumors are true. Along the same vein of never seek out the truth no matter how hard it is pounding on your door, Susan also shuts down poor Dr. More every time he tries to tell her about his wife, who clearly does not live with him. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

We are also given conflicting messages about women’s roles: Dr. Drake tells Susan repeatedly how wrong she was not to have had children. “A woman is never completed, or utterly happy, until she has produced a child her own.” Since Dr. Drake ends up adopting, we can assume that her declarations of how happy she is are untrue, since she did not produce the child in question. For her part, Susan decides that “only by sacrificing her career could she ever prove to Jimmie that she loved him,” and when she has finally settled on a man, she tells him, “If you would prefer me to give up my work—I’ll give it up.” (To his credit, the gentleman in question is shocked, and answers, “Your heart has always been in this work, and I’m willing to share your heart with your work, might dear—more than willing.”

If it’s a mostly pleasant, meandering tour of the relationships in Susan Wray’s life, this book doesn’t offer much that’s new or interesting; rather the opposite, I’m afraid, and it’s therefore mildly annoying to watch the same old story lines play out as predictably as they usually do. If only the plotting were better, Susan Wray’s hospital world would be a place worth spending your time.