By Marjorie Moore, ©1960
This is the story of Kay Somers, nurse, and Peter Raynal, a popular and brilliant surgeon. The strongly opposed forces of their respective characters bring them into a constant conflict which comes to a head when Kay is confronted with the loss of her position at St. Jude’s Hospital, and the breaking of her engagement to the ambitious young farmer who has been a life-long family friend. The story is set against the background of Hospital life and Kay’s own rural home, and brings into relief the diverse qualities of her nature. Her gradual change of heart is brought about through her affection for an ailing child, a reciprocated affection which pierces Kay’s natural armour of reserve. It is the child Christine’s influence on Kay which forges the first link of understanding between herself and Peter Raynal, an understanding which is destined to change the whole course of Kay’s life and bring her the joy and happiness which she had once believe lost to her for all time.
Kay Somers is an unusual heroine—because it must be confessed that she is kind of a bitch. Early in her nursing career she has been promoted to head nurse of Number Two Surgical Ward, and she is an efficient and highly competent nurse, but she is unfriendly, unbending and arrogant. She is described as “standoffish, unfriendly and reticent, harsh and exacting with her juniors,” and in her first scene with Dr. Peter Raynal, she is frankly rude to the point that he calls her out on it.
The problem is that Kay “should never have entered a large hospital, should never have undertaken such a career at all.” We are told that “nursing didn’t suit her temperament, she was too sensitive, too withdrawn,” making her one of the few VNRN heroines who is described as being ill-fitted for her career. The curious result is that she has become a superlative nurse but a horrible human being with just one friend, Janet, the only person who recognizes Kay’s inner warmth.
But she has a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Robin Aldon, who is coming back after seven years away in Australia, and the pair plan to be married within a month. “All I can say is God help the man; I hope he’ll enjoy being married to an iceberg!” laughs Peter, and he’s actually being quite kind in his description. It’s a frankly terrible idea to marry a man you haven’t seen in seven years, but no one can talk Kay out of it. She gives notice at the hospital with plans to take her three weeks’ vacation and get married, then return to the hospital for one final month of work before quitting forever.
But a week before leaving for home, Dr. Raynal gets a late-night call that his niece, Christine, has badly broken her leg at boarding school. Kay uncharacteristically offers to go with him to pick her up and bring her back to the hospital, and the pair manage the trip without excessive frostiness, but upon meeting young Christine, the daughter of Peter’s deceased brother, Kay is instantly smitten. She cares for the girl tirelessly, and when it’s time for her to head home, she offers to take Christine with her, as the child has essentially been abandoned by her mother.
At Kay’s home in the country, Christine is taken in by Kay’s mother, a kindly, devoted woman, while Kay works to improve the house she and Robin will be living in after their wedding in two weeks. Meanwhile, Robin is working every minute putting the farm to rights—aided admirably by Kay’s sister Penelope, who is an earthy, strong, down-to-earth woman who wears work pants and muddy boots. Penelope is training to be a veterinarian and so helpfully knows a great deal about farming and animals. Kay, meanwhile, “was so heartily sick of the endless discussions on milk yields, feeding stuffs and early crops.” Furthermore, she can’t understand how Robin can be so insensitive not to care about the ghastly curtains and getting the kitchen set up: “I know I just couldn’t live in that house the way it is,” she declares. “The very idea of starting married life in that musty-smelling room with that awful iron bed made Kay shudder; it couldn’t be done, it just couldn’t!” And worst of all, the housekeeper insists on serving lunch in the kitchen, with the vegetables served straight from the saucepan! Insult to injury, Peter Raynal will insist on coming over to see his niece, but he unexpectedly spends an afternoon helping Kay with the furniture at the new house—turns out he’s something of an expert, and finds an unnoticed Chippendale table in the attic! Gosh, I wonder how this situation is going to turn out?
Eventually the obvious occurs—Penny confesses that she’s fallen in love with Robin, and points out that Kay hasn’t spent more than a few hours with him in the ten days he’s been home, so how can she be so sure that she loves him? “You’ll never make him happy, you couldn’t, you don’t even try to understand him and just nag and nag,” Penny weeps, begging Kay to postpone the wedding. Kay has begun to have doubts of her own, and so agrees, going back to the hospital unmarried, but determined to leave in a month as planned. But then what will she do? Casting around for another job, Kay decides, “I want to give up nursing. I’m utterly miserable in my work, nursing just isn’t my career, I can’t bear to think that I shall have to carry on like this for the rest of my days.” But now she’s decided she can’t marry Robin after all, and she needs a job to support herself, so she’s stuck … unless she can get married …
It's not often that we meet a heroine who is intentionally unlikeable (more frequently, unpleasant characters are, in my opinion, just badly written), and it’s also rare to meet one who doesn’t care for nursing. The problem with Kay as a character is that there is no believable reason for her to transform into a warm, friendly person when she is outside of the hospital and then be an angry quarrelsome shrew just because she is inside one. She experiences no real crisis that makes her reconsider her past deplorable behavior, and she even reverts to it in her month back at St. Jude’s. She does not grow as a human being, which would have made me like this book even more. But this flaw notwithstanding, Marjorie Moore has given us an excellent, slowly sketched story that gently unfolds without many jarring wrinkles. Kay’s relationship with Peter grows easily, even if she is too frequently gratuitously mean to him; one other quibble is that in the end we are treated to the hackneyed trope that “I’ve always cared for you, but pride and perversity made me behave towards you as I did,” an unnecessary and disappointing detail we could have done without. We also have a chapter that happens after the marriage, which I have seen only once or twice before. All in all this is a well-written, sweet story with a few unusual tricks up its sleeve, making it easy for me to recommend that you spend some time with Peter Raynal, Surgeon.