Dawn March had her future all planned—she would marry handsome Dr. Ken Jones and they would settle in the little seacoast community that she loved and build a happy and beautiful life together. But Dawn hadn’t figured on a couple of interferences that became substantial obstacles to the realization of her dream. The first was Ken himself. There was a side of his nature that Dawn was slow to recognize, that shocked her when she did. Ken fancied himself a big-time success, and his impatient ambition was such that it left little room for the kind of life that Dawn had hoped they would share. Another was the entrance of Mrs. Clara Royce, a divorcee of great wealth, considerable beauty and no scruples whatsoever. Clara Royce offered Ken the fulfillment of his dreams—and a short-cut to the success he craved. Dawn began to realize that even the best-made plans of bright young nurses can sometimes get pretty well upset!
“Oh, I know you young girls. You simply refuse to eat proper meals and sleep proper hours. Dash here, dash there, hurt this young man, hurt that young man, call the district attorney a liar, call the newspapers liars, and go careering on your way straight to a nervous breakdown.”
“What you ought to do is marry me while you still have something to offer.”
“I ought to break a leg. That would interest you, wouldn’t it?”
“A girl so lovely, so obviously decent and well-intentioned, ought to have been married long before this. What had happened? What was her problem?”
“Lovely women aren’t often interested in business.”
“I’m told a woman never quite forgets her first husband.”
Faithful readers will know that I am a big fan of Bill Neubauer, a truly interesting individual (check out his biography) and the author of about 20 nurse novels (this is the 11th book of his I have read). With Nurse March, he again proves he is capable of a meatier book than most authors, imbuing his story with multiple plot threads that, even if they don’t all easily weave together to create a cohesive whole, nonetheless make for a more interesting read than the usual VNRN.
Nurse Dawn March is a 24-year-old visiting nurse who provides free care to the residents of Port West, a seacoast California town. She has a “sense of duty that had always kept her moving along and had earned her the reputation, at least in certain quarters, of being a girl dedicated wholeheartedly to her career.” As part of her duties, she is sent to the shack of Dan Colby, an artist who lives at the town dump, who is diagnosed with a fractured patella. He is receiving a monthly stipend from a local business magnate who fancies himself a patron of the arts, which allows him to concentrate on his painting without needing to waste all that time earning a living or even selling the paintings he produces.
Dawn does not agree with this arrangement and has it out with Dan who, for his part, explains that he doesn’t like to sell his work because “the subjects mean a great deal to me. Or perhaps because expression of any kind is too personal a thing to sell.” She argues with him about it, and he tells her he’s not interested in compromise, which would force him “to paint pretty birds that aren’t birds at all, to paint the sea as it never is, but the way some editor thinks it ought to be.” Ultimately he decides, “She had the same sort of mind that his father had. Bend to the storm! Sell your heart’s blood, if necessary, to provide material comforts for the rest of your body! And live, therefore, without dignity, without meaning!”
Unfortunately, when Dawn finds out that Dan has turned down several offers of work—selling his art to a gallery, accepting commissions from magazines to create artwork for a magazine—she feels it’s her job to make him change his ways. She starts by telling him he’s a bum in a rut, but he responds, “It sems to me that I have a pleasant existence, one with considerable point. I paint. I work very hard to learn what I need to know. I grow. Now what precisely is wrong with all that? Perhaps in another society there would be room for people who like to paint.” It’s not a bad point.
Appallingly, she takes it upon herself to meet with Dan’s benefactor, Mr. Patton, and convince him that he’s ruining Dan’s life by supporting him. Though several art critics have stated that Dan has a lot of talent, she declares that Dan is not gifted or even working on improving his art. She tells Mr. Patton that Dan works “only as it suits him to, and when it suits him to. And he does not learn, and he therefore does not progress, because the only work he does is the work he chooses to do in the way he chooses to do it. That isn’t the way to develop.” Which is ironic, because we have witnessed Dan fielding criticism that the feathers of a painting of a seagull were overdone, and he appraises his work and finds that the evaluation was true, and decides to alter his technique.
It seems Dawn’s biggest complaint is that Dan is receiving the charity of the city through her nursing visits while not contributing to society by earning a living. She misses the point that Dan is in fact being paid to paint, whether he offers a canvas in exchange for the money or not, and it’s not her call as to whether the exchange is worthwhile. “I simply think he must learn the same things we all learn—that is, to earn our living while we’re also preparing ourselves to do the sort of work we want to do. He owes it to himself and to the community to accept the commissions he’s offered. He’s had free medical care and nursing care. To that degree he’s certainly obligated to the county and to the community.” When Mr. Patton offers to pay for Dan’s medical care, she turns it down, telling Mr. Patton that his patronage is turning Dan “into a bum.” Unfortunately, she prevails, and Mr. Patton cuts Dan off. She smugly decides, “She’d at last managed to do Dan some real good.” God forbid anyone else she decides to “help”!
In her personal life, Dawn is also on the wrong tack. She’s hopelessly smitten with dentist Ken Jones, who is essentially just a pretty face. He’s been dating Dawn but doesn’t bother to remember the anniversary of their first date; it’s his kind and generous sister Hattie who invites Dawn to dinner at her and Ken’s house to mark the occasion. Curiously, though, when Ken expresses a desire to open a chain of dentistry offices throughout Southern California and in so doing reap large profits, with the investment of Clara Royce to back him, Dawn is outraged. “I think you should work as my father works, for something other than purely personal gain.” She’s convinced that Clara’s attentions have given him too much ambition: “Much of this big talk hadn’t been hatched in the mind of Ken Jones. Just a month ago, he’d been happily talking about the pleasure he found in living and working in Port West. Then, quite suddenly, here he was talking in grandiose terms and dreaming grandiose dreams.” So she dislikes one man’s lack of ambition but also decries what she feels is too much in another. Apparently Ken is not impressed with meddling women either; ultimately he nakedly says to Clara Royce in front of Dawn, “You stop leading me on, and I’ll stop leading her on.” Ouch!
The man who actually loves Dawn, Wes Overton, is a real estate agent with some interesting ideas, and who seems to fall into Dawn’s sweet spot as far as ambition goes. “I think a fellow owes it to himself and to society to do a good hard day’s work every work day of the year. But I don’t think life should be twisted into a mean grubbing for money. I think a life so twisted is a life without dignity.” He believes, he tells Dawn, that “a person has an obligation to himself to do whatever will make himself and his loved ones happy.” But never-happy Dawn sneers at his attitude, telling him, “There you are just plodding along as you’ve done all your life.”
Toward the end of the book, the now endowmentless Dan is forced to hire an agent and accept commissions to paint particular subjects for wealthy movie moguls. Dawn is elated, but I was not. Dawn’s father hints that “of late you haven’t been yourself,” but it’s not clear what he’s referring to. Her meddling with Dan’s life? Her moping over her ill-fated romance with Ken?
The book has a truly interesting and complex idea at its heart, that everyone must earn a living even if that means doing something they don’t enjoy on their path toward getting to what they really want. But if the person can find support by some other path, even if that means accepting a sponsorship or charity, is that wrong? Is Dawn forcing Dan to be in some respects a whore to do work he does not value? Should an artist be supported by the community on their path toward developing their technique in a way that a doctor or nurse, for example, is not, and may be forced to work, say, as a nurse’s aide or EMT to pay for their training toward a more complex career? The problem with how this issue is handled in Neubauer’s story is that Dawn is a hypocrite, chastising both Ken for his ambition and Dan for his lack of it and ignorning Wes’s happy medium; she believes Ken should be doing more for free and settling for less, while Wes should be working harder to expand his business. And why is it her job to wreck the good life Dan is enjoying for himself, and even Mr. Patton’s enjoyment in helping Dan achieve that?
The end of the book holds some real surprise twists, and
Dawn ends up with a man who deserves better. I had hoped that the
self-righteous and shallow Dawn, meddling in affairs that didn’t concern her
and chasing a pretty boy with no character, would face some sort of
come-uppance that would cause her to realize the error of her ways, but she did
not, and I can’t feel that Dawn is a better person at the end of the book. But
the story did give me a lot to think about, and talk over with other people who
hadn’t read the books, so in that respect it was successful. As usual, Neubauer
gives us delightful characters and charming writing, so if the heroine was not
all I wish she had been, this book still has a lot to offer, and my high
opinion of Bill Neubauer remains unchanged, and even fleshes out my ideas of
what his character was that he produced a book with this message.