Sunday, April 30, 2023

Highway Nurse

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1965

Nurse Jan Lowell loved her fiancé and looked forward to her life with the brilliant young surgeon. Then why was she daydreaming about the young highway patrol officer? And what was there about his blue-eyed, unfriendly face that haunted her nights?


“Lucky you! Not every girl stopped for a traffic violation grabs such a gorgeous hunk of man to read her the riot act.”

“You carry a gun, don’t you? Couldn’t you arrange to have it go off sort of by accident, you know?” 

“It’s some distance between the hospital and the altar.”

It’s so hard being the responsible older sister. There’s just no end of crap you have to take for your little sister, like accept the blame for a hit-and-run when it was madcap Vicki behind the wheel of the light blue convertible roadster when they’d hit five-year-old Davey Barbour, knocking him into a ditch, and Vicki had driven on another few miles down the road. Finally Jan Lowell had convinced Vicki, now hysterical with a not-unreasonable fear that she’d do jail time given her already poor driving record, to turn the car around, but not before Vicki in full hysterics convinces Jan to take the rap: “If you won’t do a simple little favor like that for me, you’re just plain mean,” she pouts, and Jan ultimately agrees, her nursing license and ethics be damned.

But highway cop Bob Creasy, who arrives on the scene to investigate, does not believe Jan’s story that she was in shock after hitting the boy, then blacked out, and this was why she was so long in returning to the scene of the crime. He also doesn’t believe that Jan, who immediately strikes him as an honest, solid character, was driving, particularly since Vicki blabs a bit more than she should. Bob offers to drive Jan to the hospital, but detours past a coffee shop, where he tells her he’s quitting his job because he can’t stand feeling so helpless at car crashes and is planning on becoming a lawyer, as he has just passed the bar exam. He apologizes for snapping at her—and says that there will be no repercussions at all for the accident “even if I don’t accept every single thing you tell me as gospel.” He even asks her for a date, but she declines, since she’s engaged to Dr. Neal Darwin, a brilliant pediatrician. 

The problem with her engagement is that she refuses to name a date because Neal will not allow Vicki to live with them, and Jan doesn’t believe Vicki, at 20, is responsible enough to manage on her own—and given the whole car accident we’ve just witnessed, she has a valid concern. Neal, however, insists that Jan start putting him first: “Dump Vicki and marry me, or else,” he tells her. For her part, Vicki is in love with orderly Jimmy Lester, who is extremely good at his job—could even become a doctor, in Jan’s opinion—but Jimmy was born a ramblin’ man. “The birds have got the right idea: Fly away when you feel like it,” he says. He’s entertaining the idea of moving to Alaska, so Jan asks him to stop seeing Vicki, because she does not think Vicki could handle life there: “You’d have to wear a heavy fur-hooded parka and learn to ski if you wanted to get around any. You may not believe this, honey, but severe weather conditions can have a terrific effect on one’s life. They can even effect the metabolism. Ask any doctor.”

Meanwhile, Davey is recovering in the hospital and bonding strongly with the staff there, as the aunt who had been raising the orphan has split for Texas. All except Dr. Neal, however, because despite his choice of pediatrics as a specialty, he does not care for children much. Jan “couldn’t help wishing at times that Neal could display a little more warmth of heart toward his little patients,” instead of acting “like a man going in to examine a broken typewriter or a cash register that isn’t working.” Davey loves Bob, though, and decides he wants Jan and Bob to be his parents!

The best thing about this book is Bob, who is a kind, easygoing, thoughtful, honest person who never once grabs Jan or orders her around. Instead, he admires her strength, her capability. “The smooth satiny blackness of her hair was lovely to look at. So was the proud lift of her head, and the grace of her movements. She looked tired now. Faint lines of weariness showed in her face, which was without makeup. Her uniform was crumpled. She was certainly no glamour girl at the moment. And yet everything about her looked truly beautiful to him.” He doesn’t believe Jan was driving at the time of the accident and tells her so, but he never badgers her about it, just waits for her to eventually acknowledge the truth. He has a relaxed, warm, sardonic character that is genuinely attractive. The problem is Jan’s bizarre devotion to Dr. Neal that just won’t quit, no matter how awful he gets—even at his absolute worst, when he shoves Davey to the ground and completely loses his cool, even though Jan is “deeply shocked” by his behavior, “she still wanted to hold on to him”—chiefly, it seems, because she cannot tolerate being alone: "What would she do about the emptiness it would leave in her life? She felt like a little boat which had lost its anchor. She felt so lost.”

It's a relief that Florence Stonebraker hasn’t relied too heavily on her usual tricks: Dr. Neal never becomes a certifiable lunatic, no one waves a gun around or attempts murder, no character is named Kitty. And while the relationship between Jan and Bob is one of the nicest I’ve seen in a VNRN, overall the book doesn’t have a great enough zest that would put it into an A category. You can’t go wrong reading this book, but it probably won’t be one you remember in a month, either.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Doctor Lucy

By Barbara Allen (pseud. Violet Finlay Stuart), ©1956
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik 

A woman doctor, Lucy found, is still suspect to her male colleagues. “We teach you and train you,” they argue, “and then what happens? You marry!” Well, Lucy announced, she wouldn’t. She had finished with love and marriage since Johnny Eglington had let her down so badly, and now she could come back without fear of any complications, to the district where Johnny and his wife still lived. She explained this to Johnny himself, to Michael Dare, her old friend, and to her chief at the Melfield Hospital, that clever surgeon Paul Brandon. Extraordinary that none of them seemed to be quite convinced!


“We’ve got science at our fingertips, we do a good job, but we lack—I don’t know, I think it’s humanity.” 

“For the Lord’s sake don’t go and marry the first young numbskull that asks you. It would be the most appalling waste.”

“Medicine’s no job for a good-looking young woman, and the Lord alone knows why you want to want to become a surgeon. It’s the devil of a life; women haven’t the temperament for it. If you must specialize, you ought to take up obstetrics. Plenty of scope there.”

Dr. Lucy Grey is a surgeon, just returning to her hometown in England to embark on a five-year residency, and on the basis of one day in the OR with her, esteemed Dr. Marcus Anstruther is offering her a partnership. But it’s a long road to get there, and in the interim there’s the constant condescension and doubt of pretty much every doctor she meets. “It would be a pity, a waste of all life could give you as a woman,” Dr. Paul Brandon, her chief, tells her. “For a woman marriage isn’t possible if she’s making the sort of career you visualize. Even for a man that sort of compromise isn’t easy, but at least it’s possible. A man can put his whole heart into his job and yet make a happy and successful marriage.” This is hypocrisy of the highest order, impossible in this day and age to see how it works for one gender and not the other, unless you consider the lack of birth control as a limiting factor for women—but then women surgeons have been known to have children and continue to work. There’s a lot of that sort of talk in this book, and it does get a bit monotonous at times, and disheartening to hear it from Lucy’s love interest. But Lucy meets it all with quiet determination and sincerity and faith in her abilities, skill she has learned from her father, a local general practitioner, who is much beloved by the community, able to be more successful as a physician because his patients trust him implicitly.

The cast of characters in the book includes Julia Eglington, who had stolen Lucy’s fiancé Johnny Eglington from her two years ago—but now, the marriage is in ruins. Julia has been in a serious car crash, possibly a suicide attempt, and Johnny has become a dissipated loser who unsuccessfully tries to win Lucy back. Then there’s Lucy’s childhood friend Michael Dare, 12 years her senior and never previously more than an older brother type, who proposes to Lucy. Dr. Paul Brandon, the very talented, handsome but ridiculously cool surgeon who built his career from literally nothing, slowly grows in Lucy’s esteem as she grows in his. All have their secrets, and author Violet Finlay Stuart (here writing as Barbara Allen) really brilliantly manages to keep the mysteries under wraps in an organic way without drawing them out so painfully that the reader becomes bored or indifferent, or telegraphing the answers so glaringly that they are not mysteries at all.

As Lucy works to pull all the frayed ends together, her growing attraction to Paul is painted very compellingly, such as when she experiences “a magnetic current” when they touch: “It was by no means the first time that she had been aware of his masculine attraction and his good looks, but at that moment both seemed magnified, and the strange intentness of his gaze set her pulses racing.” But Paul is guarding some secret of Julia’s—could it be their feeling for each other?

Ultimately the answers to the puzzle of the relationships and interactions are revealed rather satisfactorily—I even managed to be surprised at a few. The only problems with the ending are the medically implausible damage to the senior Dr. Grey’s heart caused by an embolism in the femoral artery, which is located in the thigh, rendering him incapable of ever working again, and the sudden readjustments of Lucy’s career that result, after all her many protestations about her dedication to her career up until then, making her previous arguments as completely hollow and meaningless as the mansplanations from all those misogynist doctors. But all in all, Doctor Lucy is an enjoyable, well-written story that gives us interesting, complex characters and a plot skillfully revealed. If the lead character turns out to be something of a paper tiger, well, it’s a rare book that has it all, and we don’t need to chuck the whole thing out because of one weakness. As Lucy herself notes, “It was all too easy for lesser beings to criticize perfection, for inferiors to be jealous of it.”

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Senior Nurse

By Josephine James, ©1960
Cover illustration by Stan Klimley 

As a student nurse, Kathy Martin knew her senior year would be hard—with new responsibilities and longer hours. But she also knew there were beautiful, happy days ahead … there were her friends at the hospital, and, above all, there was Steve. But suddenly Kathy’s world clouded over … a missing locket … a hospital crisis … and a handsome new patient whose gentle sensitivity drew Kathy toward his own shadowy world … Suddenly Kathy’s heart had to choose: duty—or love?


“Nurses can’t give out any information. That—and a few other little things—is what doctors are for.” 

Oh, boy! Kathy Martin is so excited to be starting her senior year as a nursing student in San Tomás, California (a suburb of San Jose)! She’s rooming in a house with her five besties, and you’ll never guess the hijinks they will get into! Kelley Jones has the house in a crunchy uproar with her new hobby of making mosaics out of beans and rice—and that stuff goes absolutely everywhere! Gail spends most of her days in a dreamworld all because of Berkeley premed Jim Telford, and then Jenny Ramirez takes a job at a supermarket as the demo chef Miss Instant Hotcakes to help a nurse’s aide with a tragic past—she was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp—pay for nursing school. When all her housemates troop out to watch her at work, hilarity ensues! 

Kathy has a young man from home, firefighter Steve Kovak. Their relationship is fairly casual—no thudding hearts or grieving tears when Kathy is deposited at school for a long year of almost complete separation. So when Kathy meets a blind young man named Gordon McKinley, who happens to have a heart condition that makes him prone to heart attacks and which is likely to prove fatal in the near future, it is not hard for her to get caught up in what is clearly a relationship driven more by her Florence Nightingale impulses than any actual romantic feeling. Gordon is an intelligent man who frequently quotes poetry—“courage, a sense of humor, talented—he was a remarkable person.” But nothing in the descriptions of her interactions with him make us think that she views him as other than a shiny new toy or at best a lap dog who needs extra care. Then when Gordon has a serious heart attack and lands in Kathy’s hospital, that does seem to seal the deal for her in a most artificial way: “Gordon did want her and need her! She saw a life ahead dedicated to his service.” Doesn’t that sound like fun?

She breaks an important weekend trip with Steve to watch Gordon graduate from college, and Steve is smart enough to realize that her deep pity is going to beat out her apparently tepid affection for him, and he breaks up with her. Now she’s free to be Gordon’s permanent full-time nursemaid—the only question remaining whether Gordon thinks this is a good idea, because Gordon’s mother, an otherwise kindly woman, clearly doesn’t think it is, even if she did initially encourage the relationship.

In the crevices of this plotline are multiple other mini-stories—an explosion at the cannery that leaves many people gravely injured, including the nurse’s aide who’d survived the Holocaust; a missing locket that is presumed stolen, and the senior nurse gang’s so-called Do-It-Yourself Detective Agency that tracks down the guilty party; various senior activities that require skits and songs; Kathy’s concussion that makes a patient of her for more than a week. Kathy’s senior year eventually comes to a close, and Kathy, lacking any real drive to do anything in particular with her career, enlists for a year of service in Alaska, though this effectively puts her out of reach of her two uninspiring beaux.

Overall the book is not unpleasant, just even more simple and superficial than most VNRNs. Only at one point does the book—which admirably includes characters who are not white—briefly touch on the racism encountered by some members of the class: “If you’re a Negro, like Miss Johnson, or even a little darker than the average, like my people, with mixed-up Indian and Spanish ancestors, or Oriental-looking, like Yo—well, the way things are, you have to work harder to make your performance better than other people’s. To be accepted,” explains Jenny Ramirez. Kathy’s response is to nod slowly, “hating to admit the unpleasant truth,” then quickly change the subject, which is never brought up again (though the scholarship to continue studies is given to Jenny Ramirez, and the Asian character is planning, bizarrely, now to pursue an MD).

At the book’s conclusion, the question of whether someone spark any whisper of passion in Kathy’s cardboard heart is only partially answered, and not in any satisfying way. If this book is intended for a teen audience, as it seems it is, then it works a little better, since we do feel a little uncomfortable about young girls marrying off before they’re old enough to order a cosmo (unless they live in West Virginia)—though they regularly do in other VNRNs more clearly intended for an adult audience. Kathy’s rapprochement with one of her young men occurs with remarkable sangfroid, and though Kathy encourages the fellow to kiss her—“it’s the proper thing at graduation,” she tells him—the act occurs offstage, and is no doubt as decorous as the graduation proceedings were. Senior Nurse would probably seem like a better book if you’re thirteen, and if it’s not especially enticing for those who are decades older, at least it reminds you that life once was a lot more simple than it is today.

NOTE: After writing this review, I realized that this book is Number 3 in a 13-book series featuring Nurse Kathy Martin that includes Peace Corps Nurse (book 12), which I have already reviewed. I am not a fan of series, because they tend to be pretty awful (looking hard at you, Jill Nolan, and Dr. Jane—only Marilyn Morgan is worth reading), but also because they necessarily are not really romance novels—how many men can you end up with without seeming like an unstable serial dater? I will, therefore, not be racing out to finish up the series.