Saturday, February 25, 2023

Twin Nurse

By Bess Norton (pseud. Olive Norton), ©1959 

Twins, even identical ones, are not always alike in every way; often one is gayer and more vital, the other quiet and thoughtful. This was certainly the case with Mary and Marty McEwan, twin nurses working in the same hospital. The difference showed itself, too, in the twins’ love affairs—one stormy, the other tender and apparently hopeless. Here is a hospital romance with a difference, not only because the story is told by “the quiet twin” herself, but because every character in it, from the humblest patient to the most exalted Consultant, is a real live person whose problems matter. The authentic background is the authors’ own, for she is a State Registered Nurse who knows her setting intimately, and with love.


“I can register refined horror over the top of a mask as well as anyone I know. Sometimes it works, too.” 

“Really, for an intelligent girl, you do behave like a complete moron at times.”

Mary McEwan is the quiet, “less attractive” twin of a pair who work in a busy, large hospital—her sister Marty had been voted “the prettiest nurse at St. Faith’s,” bizarre in numerous ways. While Mary is hard-working and in chapter one tumbles hard for the new surgeon John Smith, Marty sneaks out a lot and breaks rules. Marty also soon seems to be chasing after John Smith, who initially seems to miss the fact that they are twins and gives contemptuous looks to Mary, which are never explained. Marty seems to have a lot of secrets, and we’re never really told what they’re about, just allowed to watch as the twins seldom interact, though we are told they are—or were—very close.

Soon it comes out that Dr. Grant Ashby has had a car crash, and that a woman was driving, and she was seen running away from the crash toward the hospital. Everyone thinks it was Marty, and she refuses to say what had happened that night, until eventually she confesses to Mary that she had been out with Grant and that he had assaulted her—she has bruises on her shoulders—but she’d gotten away before the crash, and it turns out he’d been driving after all. So a lot of dithering about this incident in the end winds up as not really important to the plot. Which is how much of this book goes.

Mary and John do seem to like each other, and they are kissing before we’re halfway through the book, but then Marty always seems to turn up with John, and it’s not clear whether she’s trying to win John for herself—again, never explained—but Mary assumes this to be the case and decides she can no longer trust Marty. No kidding: Marty has not exactly been forthcoming about anything with Mary, starting with her role in Grant’s car crash, innocent though it was. John eventually sends a letter to Mary saying he wants to cool things down between them, so Mary, somehow apparently believing that this will change everything, takes a trip to London to the church where John had been abandoned as an infant and discovers that he was actually a fraternal twin, though his sister had died. Then Mary is incidentally caught on TV when the Queen passes by en route to somewhere else, and people at the hospital see her on TV, and that’s all there is to that story, even the part about Mary’s side trip to London or John’s being a twin.

Next Mary burns her arm in the surgical instrument sterilizer and gets cellulitis but still insists on working, which means she is a little delirious with fever and says a lot of too-honest things and faints multiple times. There’s a big catastrophe at the end, with multiple key characters requiring emergency medical treatment, and John says he won’t marry Mary unless he knows who is family is, but after she is rendered unconscious for several weeks because of her cellulitis—which does not happen, in case you were wondering—everything works out in the end.

The main problem with this book is that it is an absolute tossed salad of plot points and characters that never amount to much. For example, we are introduced to at least 45 different characters, most of whom are not given either a first or last name, and keeping everyone straight is very difficult. It doesn’t help that Mary seems to be working in a completely different hospital department in every half-chapter, so by the time you sort out her current job and co-workers, she shuttled off to some other corner of the hospital. We are also offered a lot of foreshadowing sentences like “Marty was on the edge of something, she was riding for a fall.” Or, “Quite suddenly I was afraid of Marty’s restlessness, afraid of where it might lead us both.” It’s hard to understand, when you’ve finished the book, what the fall was, exactly, unless you count the accident that happens in the end of the book, which no one could have predicted and certainly wasn’t Marty’s fault. I was surprised to remember that Olive Norton is actually one of the best VNRN authors I’ve encountered—she’s been on the Best Authors list for the last four of the VNRN Awards and had previously never earned less than a B+ grade—but here she seems to have lost her way. I guess even the best of us can’t always be at our best.

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