By Dorothy Fletcher, ©1969
When a pretty, single girl is taken to a bachelor’s luxurious, isolated seashore house, wined and dined by the charming young man she believes is the “Mr. Right” she’s been waiting for, what does she do when he becomes amorous? If the girl is Dinah Mason, a tawny-eyed nurse, vivacious and sophisticated at 25, and if her Mr. Right is Dick Claiborne, a serious lawyer by day and a jet-setter by night … there’s bound to be some swinging surprises in the age-old art of loving.
“He eyed her long and shapely legs and winced when he came to the stout, serviceable nurse’s shoes. A girl with legs like that shouldn’t have to wear those clumpy shoes, damn it. When were they going to do something about the shoes? Pucci was dolling up the airline hostesses. Why didn’t some designer give the nurses a break?”
“You look like a strawberry. Good enough to eat.”
“It seems to me that people are getting more and more inarticulate with each succeeding generation.”
“On a day like this it was difficult to believe that the air was poisoned with monoxides.”
“Home is really someone you love more than anything else in the world.”
“Nurses always have thick ankles and things like that. They have severe expressions. And almost invariably, a suggestion of moustache on their upper lips.”
Dinah Mason is our eponymous New York City-based visiting nurse who is between jobs when the book opens, and is spending an afternoon visiting her former patient Victoria Blanding, a charming and tough old gal whom Dinah had nursed through a broken hip. Victoria remarks to Dinah that had she come later she could have met her lovely nephew, who is engaged to be married to “a quite dreary girl. Jet-set type of young woman, the kind I can’t stand. Pity you couldn’t have met him first.” It is a pity, because she’s going to be 26, which means she’s about doomed to a long, lonely, spinster existence, since she just can’t bring herself to marry her longtime beau, Mike Corby. “The hoped-for spark was missing; she didn’t tingle, not the way she should,” she thinks.
After leaving Miss Blanding’s Park Avenue apartment, she heads to 57th Street, then to York, winding up in a park off Sutton Place near the Queensboro Bridge. There she meets a shabby older gentleman reading Baudelaire in the original French. Down on his luck, she assumes from his ratty clothes, and so chats him up to lift his spirits for a bit; “People like that make my heart ache. Isn’t it terrible what happens to some people?” Then she’s off for a date with Mike, during which she again says no to his proposals for marriage and sex; this book is one of the most open about the possibility of the heroine having sex with her boyfriends. She doesn’t, though, of course: “It was always a good way to work up a head of steam, pondering the role of the single girl in society. If she heard a man say just once more, What’s the matter with you … you frigid or something? she would scream. Didn’t they ever wonder if there was something wrong with their own appeal? The male ego, she told herself, was stupendous.”
Dinah’s next job is caring for Margaret Paley, a lonely 51-year-old widow who attempts suicide with a bottle of sleeping pills. “I have no shame about what I did, Dinah. Only despair that it was abortive. A person has a right to do with her own life what she wants to,” Mrs. Paley says—a vastly different attitude about suicide than what the typical VNRN offers, which is deep shame for the patient and a hasty sweep under the rug of the offensive action. Once Mrs. Paley is out of the hospital, Dinah accompanies her to her apartment on 56th Street, coincidentally at York Street and Sutton Place. She sees the old man in the park and dashes in to say hello to him before dashing off again—but leaves Mrs. Paley’s suitcase behind. Fortunately, the old man’s son, Dick Claiborne, is also loitering in the park nearby, and has been scoping out the lovely nurse, and he rushes after her with the case, and then offers to drive her to collect Mrs. Paley and chauffer her home.
Dinah, attempting to jolly Mrs. Paley out of her deep depression, drags her out on walks in the city, finally taking her to the Sutton Place park. Sadly, the park only reminds Mrs. Paley of her deceased husband, which makes Dinah sigh, “You can’t win. Everything in the world must remind you of the person you had loved and lost.” Then she spots the older gentleman and brings Mrs. Paley over to share the bench and a little conversation. Soon he is describing the boats and canals of Venice—and then Mrs. Paley suddenly chimes in with her own rhapsody for that beautiful city, as well as Paris, Provence and the travels each of them had done with their now-departed spouses. After the ladies have headed for home, Mrs. Paley enlightens Dinah that the gentleman is wearing fine tailored clothes, even if they are well-worn, and is clearly quite wealthy. “Rich people never look rich,” she says. “Rich people have holes in the soles of their shoes. It’s because they don’t care. They don’t have to care.” Feeling better now, Mrs. Paley dismisses Dinah, who next moves in with the Wallace family, the mother of which is recovering from knee surgery, at 920 Park Avenue—nothing but the finest addresses for our Dinah! There we enjoy the younger Wallaces, Joanie (age 8) and Wendy (age 4), who track gooey finger paint all over the apartment.
Dick, meanwhile, after dropping off Dinah and Mrs. Paley, has been unable to get Dinah out of his mind, so he phones all over town to track her down, finally reaching the Wallace’s house on his fifth try but being subjected to a long conversation with the four-year-old before Dinah intervenes. Dick asks her out, and Dinah eagerly accepts. “I’ve always wanted something like this to happen to me, Dinah thought. Someone coming unexpectedly into my life … remembering me. Not forgetting. Calling me up …” Their date takes them throughout New York, and Dinah is completely won over: “She was brimming with contentment, happier than she ever remembered being, so much at peace that she would almost have settled for this perfect day being the last one of her life.”
For her part, Mrs. Paley wanders back to the Sutton Place park and runs into the older gentleman—now we learn he is Gordon Claiborne—who is reading a book that he offers her along with an invitation to dinner in a painful, tender and truly touching scene in which they discuss loneliness before deciding to dine together at a bistro on 51st Street on scallops and trout with French pastries and vintage brandy afterward. “I don’t remember ever having been so hungry,” Mrs. Paley thinks. “It was simply the incontestable fact of a woman on the arm of a distinguished man that made all the difference. It was a social thing, a human thing.” They make another date as they say goodnight, and she falls asleep without effort, for the first time since her husband died.
There are the inevitable hurdles for the younger lovers to overcome, such as Mike Corby, and Dick’s fiancée, and a beautiful day sailing that ends disastrously when Dinah realizes that Dick is trying to seduce her: “I refuse to be someone’s prey,” she fumes and is about to walk home when he offers to drive her, but asks her to stop for coffee on the way to clear the air. “If he was just going to take her home and ditch her, write her off as a bad try and a poor guess, why would he suggest stopping off for coffee?” She thinks hopefully, realizing he wanted her because he loves her, not just to use her. Over coffee he invites her to meet his aunt, and a series of startling coincidences unfolds, ultimately leading to what would be a truly fabulous ending, except for the last sentence.
This book is as much an homage to the city of New York as it is a double romance—not surprising, given the title. We traipse all over the city on various dates, take in the view on Wall Street and Trinity Church, commune with the animals at the Central Park Zoo, dine out on Bank and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village, and sip cocktails at the Drake Hotel. I also especially appreciated the double romance that included an older couple, which was so unexpected and sweet that it actually left me weeping in a public lobby.
As usual, Fletcher tucks in many cultured references such as Elsa and Siegfried, Balenciaga, Fleurs de Rocaille perfume, Emma Bovary, Steiff toys, Schubert, Genêt, Jane and Paul Bowles, tempus fugit, and the Perls art gallery, among others. The humor is sprinkled liberally throughout, with lines like “‘Did it cost an arm and a leg?’ ‘Just an arm,’ Dinah said.” and “It was sentimentality, born of the gratuitous effects of a sleeping pill, but it was nice to hear.” The only thing I didn’t love about Dinah is that she is willing to chuck her career when she gets married, which she thinks won’t be a problem if she’s “crazy in love.” “Now her nursing days were almost over. Was she sorry about it? Yes, a little. When you married, you gave up your own life. Women did, at any rate. Would she ever regret it?” But in general, this is a top-notch book, Fletcher—who continues as one of my very favorite authors—in fine form.