Saturday, December 16, 2023

Alex Rayner, Dental Nurse

By Marjorie Lewty, ©1965 

When Alex first started working for Dr. Gerard Trent she wasn’t at all sure that she approved of him; then, as she got to know him better, she began to like him very much indeed. But what was the use of that, when he was so firmly engaged to the glamorous Marilyn Lattimer?


“Jobs can be important to girls, too, you know. We’re not all just hanging about waiting until some man comes along to marry us.” 

“She wouldn’t again be so ready to rely on masculine promises made in the moonlight. They would be more convincing, she thought, if made in the broad light of day—preferably when the girl concerned was drying her hair in curlers or had a bad cold in her head.”

“It’s always better to admit you don’t know than to make a mess of it.”

“I remember reading somewhere once that everybody has some special lesson to learn in life and that it’s presented over and over again, in different circumstances, until we learn it or are beaten by it.”

“For the first time she felt she understood one of the basic differences in outlook between men and women: women could bring babies into the world. They had that fulfillment that a man could never have. Was that why men so badly needed ambition, a self-justification that they were important and successful?”

I have to declare at the outset that this book does not really qualify as a nurse novel. Heroine Alex Rayner works in a dentist’s office—not that there’s anything wrong with that; the other two Marjorie Lewty books I’ve read had similar settings—but Alex has not had any formal training, so I can’t by any stretch call her a nurse. But she is a smart, charming and enterprising woman of 22 who has been working for six months in Birmingham, England, chiefly alongside dentist Douglas Crenshaw, a decent but nervous sort; her best friend Jean’s husband Brian Ferguson is another of the office dentists. As we open Chapter 1, we find that the senior dentist, Mr. Trent (we are never given his first name), has had a heart attack, and his son Gerald has come back from Toronto to step in while Mr. Trent is recovering. “Dr. Gerard was the most brilliant dental surgeon ever released from the Eastman Hospital to a grateful world,” according the office battle-axe spinster, Clarice, who has always worked with Dr. Trent, and now hopes to butter up the younger man at the expense of her colleagues.

When Gerard shows up, though, he feels the office is not operating at its most efficient. He immediately moves Clarice to the position of front-desk secretary, which he attempts to sell as a linchpin-type position to preserve her starched dignity—though he actually feels she is not capable of more taxing work in oral surgery—and moves Alex out of Douglas’s office to work alongside him. This makes her a target for Clarice’s venom, though she tries her best to be civil, as difficult as that might be at times, and she is known to imagine “how wonderfully satisfying it would be to push Clarice over backwards.” Even at her worst, Alex is not all that mean. 

From the beginning Alex is a bit swoony over the confident, handsome young man: “For a second everything rocked and then steadied and took on the clarity and vividness of a dream” when she meets him for the first time. He is tough on the outside but easy to work with, not expecting much of Alex but challenging her to watch what he does, ask lots of questions and try to learn what he would need next for a certain procedure and offer the appropriate instrument before she is asked for it.

Of course, there is office drama: Douglas is falling for Alex and asking her out on dates that she enjoys, but then worries that she’s getting herself into a sticky situation with an office romance. Brian now has a foxy new assistant, since the staff has been shifted around, and is now spending late nights out while his wife and young daughter wait at home for him. Alex, who is best friends with Brian’s wife, is put into the awkward position of covering for Brian’s absence with a lie he has included her in. This lands her in more hot water, as she has told Gerard another story about her whereabouts for the night in question, so he is aware that she is lying and suspects that it is she who is seeing Brian on the side. How is she going to win him now??

In her efforts to straighten out all the misunderstandings and eventually set the various male characters on the right paths, Alex demonstrates intelligence, strength and honesty—and it’s that last  characteristic combined with a spot of luck that in the end sets her straight with Mr. Right. In the interim we have the pleasure of watching Alex maneuver through her various difficulties with sense and humor; when she hears while she is down with a cold that Gerard is engaged to another woman, she wonders “if perhaps if she had pneumonia after all and would have a reasonable chance of dying quietly.” If this book doesn’t carry the same heft as Lewty’s legitimate nurse novels (Dental Nurse at Denley’s and Town Country—Country Nurse) or even as much witty humor, Lewty’s “worst” of the trio is still substantially better than most. So even if it’s not an actual nurse novel, you have my permission to make room on your reading list for this easy beauty.

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