Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nurse in the Shadows

By Peggy Gaddis (pseud. of Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1965

Could anyone be trusted? The pleasant young lawyer who warned her against the socialite playboy? The beautiful dissatisfied young wife? The grief-stricken parents? Or the handsome bachelor who was playing two games at once? Caring for a handsome patient on a luxurious Florida estate had seemed a superb private nursing assignment for Nurse Ramsey—but it was turning into a nightmare!

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTE:
“Don’t ever try to understand a woman, Allen—any woman! Nothing could be more insulting to her! We like to think of ourselves as being very mysterious, because it makes us seem more glamorous and intriguing, I suppose.”

REVIEW:
Thus far I have not been a fan of books by Peggy Gaddis, though it must be acknowledged that I have read only two (Dr. Merry’s Husband and A Nurse for Apple Valley). So I opened Nurse in the Shadows with my guns blazing, prepared to pump it full of holes. And the book is not perfect, but as I found myself overly outraged by the ten different times the word pretty was used in 15 pages, I suddenly realized that this is as egregious as its faults get, and on the whole this is a pretty good book.

Leona Ramsey (not to be confused with Luana Ramsdell of A Nurse for Apple Valley) has come to Miami Beach to care for a patient in a coma at the request of his extremely wealthy parents, who now look after him. Tony Kincaid was shot in the head by his wife, Cheryl, just a few months after their marriage, and though it was ruled an accident, the rest of the family isn’t too sure: “She wanted to kill him. But she was a rotten shot,” Leona is told by the nurse who is leaving the job. Tony does not require much care, just hooking up to the IV for his feedings. (Eighteen months after the incident, he must have one colossal bedsore.)

The Kincaids live in a beachfront mansion, and it needs to be big to house all the people who live in it. Apart from Tony, his parents, several housekeepers, and Leona, Cheryl is also living there. Before she married Tony, Cheryl was “a cheap little night club dancer; never got out of the chorus line. … When she met Tony, she just latched on to him like a bulldog latching onto a nice juicy steak.” Now she is a sulky brat with honey-colored hair who trots around in beach clogs and “a mere wisp of a white silk bathing suit that left her delectably sun-tanned young body revealed to daring degree.”

Tony’s parents, Preston and Eunice Kincaid, have adopted Allen Leonard, an attorney and advisor to Mr. Kincaid, who also has a room. Allen, in a major first for vintage nurse romance novels, is “homely” and “rather pleasantly ugly until his friendly smile illuminated his rugged face with a sort of boyish charm.”

Rounding out the cast of characters is heartthrob Barry Manning, the only one who doesn’t live in (he is the next-door neighbor) and a former chum of Tony’s. He introduced Tony to Cheryl, but now he seems to be helping the not-grieving not-widow fill her days, and her nights too: “He has been a great comfort to Cheryl since Tony’s accident,” Leona is told.

Things get off to a fast start when, her first night there, Allen warns Leona to stay away from Barry: “Barry’s talents seem to inspire him to make a mad pursuit of every young and pretty girl he sees. And I just wanted to warn you not to take him seriously.” Leona responds with a string of hostile remarks. Barry naturally enters into the scene, followed shortly by Allen’s exit. Leona is quickly quarreling with Barry, but just a page later he says, “I think I’ve fallen in love with you,” kisses her, and then walks away. The next time she sees Barry, as she emerges from the ocean after a quick swim, he acknowledges that he has been watching the beach with binoculars for her, and invites her out; she quickly accepts, though his come-on is way too creepy to be attractive to any sane woman.

But before they actually set up a date, she goes to the greyhound races with Allen, where he makes it evident that he, too, is smitten, though he is much less slimy about it, and contents himself with looking at her admiringly, guiding her through the throngs, and telling her, “Just being with you is all and more than any man could hope for.” When Leona finally gets around to dinner at Barry’s house, she inadvertently overhears a conversation between Barry and Cheryl in which he says, “We will just have to wait it out until—well, until you inherit from Tony.” Then he tells Cheryl he is just “playing up to the nurse to throw dust into the Kincaids’ eyes… If they think I am pursuing her, then … there will be no danger of anybody thinking it’s you I’m in love with.” On her tear-filled rush back to the house, Leona runs into Allen, who takes her out to dinner and thereby solidifies his position as top contender for her affections.

Peggy Gaddis’ device of putting us inside the heads of a second couple is actually used to good effect in this book, as we are allowed to follow Cheryl around. She tells her father in law that she wants a divorce and a large settlement, and while he is all in favor of the divorce, he sets her straight as far as the money goes: “As Tony’s widow, you would, of course, inherit a very substantial amount … but as Tony’s divorced wife, you will have no claim whatever on any of the estate.” He also mentions that Barry, who lives in an outbuilding on his estate and rents out the main estate because he isn’t as wealthy as all that, will never marry her as long as she has no money of her own. So you can guess where this is going to go. And we get to follow Barry and Cheryl as they work their cons on Leona, Allen, and the Kincaids, and watch with no small pleasure as the saps completely fall for it.

In the end, of course, all is set to rights, though the final scene between Leona and her intended is rather unsatisfying. She basically spends four pages arguing with him when he says she can’t go on a cruise with the elder Kincaids because he has plans for her—why are heroines so unbelievably dense in these final scenes?—and then because he has proposed before he has said that he is in love with her: “Any girl likes to—well, to put away a few lovely memories of the time her man proposed to her, and you’re cheating me of that! You’ve never said you loved me.”

There is also a good deal of sloppy writing, like when Cheryl “shrank from” Allen four times in three pages, when the word inimical is used four times, when Preston asks a question bluffly—is this just a typo, or does Peggy really think this is a correct use of the word? But I am a former copy editor with, I admit, unreasonably high standards in these regards, especially when it comes to this particular genre, which is not known for attention to detail. And this book is actually something of a page-turner—I finished it in one sitting—and perfectly enjoyable, once you put down your guns and your prejudice against Peggy Gaddis’ books.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wayneston Hospital

By Elizabeth Kellier (pseud. Elizabeth Kelly),
©1963
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Wayneston was a very small village hospital, having only one resident doctor, the young Chief of Staff, Ian Collington-King. And when Susan Brent came to work there as a staff nurse, the enigmatic doctor immediately roused her curiosity. Susan’s puzzlement grew after she confided her feelings to her fiancé, handsome Brian Draycott. For Brian was sure a scandal was attached to Dr. King’s name, and for his own purposes Brian was anxious to uncover it. Why had the brilliant young surgeon chosen to hide away in Wayneston? What had Brian to gain by discovering Dr. King’s secret? And why did Susan find herself in the storm center of an emotional battle between two men in her life?

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTE:
“Am I interrupting one of those important female confabs?”

REVIEW:
When the story opens, Susan Brent has just graduated from nursing school, not an uncommon affliction for heroines of vintage nurse romance novels. (It seems that once you graduate from school, the only next logical step for a gal is to get married.) Susan has left her home in London and moved to a small town in Dorset to work at the hospital and to be near her fiancé, Brian Draycott. Brian is a partner in his uncle’s development firm, and he is in charge of buying real estate so the firm can put ticky tacky houses on it. He’s hoping to buy a lot of land that’s coming up for sale soon for himself and build a house on it, and then he and Susan will get married. In the meantime, they’ll go to dinner at his stuffy parents’ house and to the movies a lot. And after they’re married, “you’ll be able to quit work altogether,” as she’s told several times in the book’s first few pages, which she receives with nary a peep.

She first meets Ian Collington-King, the limping doctor who today would be called a hospitalist, at the local pub, almost colliding with him, and it was only his “quick action … that prevented her from being thrown off balance,” as he seizes her elbow. His companion, Mr. Treverly, who runs a house in the country nearby for retired gardeners, “did not appear to like Brian. But why not? she wondered.” Such are the mysteries of vintage nurse romance novels.

But there are more! At work Dr. King, as he is mercifully called, is mum about his private life. “Nobody seems any wiser about him now than on the day he arrived eighteen months ago. In some ways, he’s a real mystery,” another nurse tells Susan. He lets it slip to Susan that he was in Rhodesia when he was in the army, and naturally she tells Brian this. Brian thinks he has heard the name before, and with Susan’s tip he soon remembers that a Major Collington-King was “cashiered” (I had to look this up, it means dishonorably discharged) from the army for embezzling money from the mess funds to support “a particularly expensive wife” and spent six months in prison for it.

In person, however, Dr. King is a kind, benign gentleman. Susan feels “surprisingly at ease” with him, and when he gives her a lift back to town, she admires how he handles the idiosyncrasies of his battered old automobile, and she feels like she did as a child in her father’s car, “so wonderfully safe.” This is in sharp contrast to Brian’s shiny new Sunbeam, a powerful racecar that he drives too fast for Susan’s liking. We are given a tour of Dr. King’s superior surgical skills, and the de rigueur enthusiastic appraisal of his hands: Susan thinks he is “a more than efficient surgeon. His slim, long-fingered hands moved with an instinctive skill, almost as if they had no need to be controlled by his brain. … She once more admiringly acknowledged his expert adroitness.”

Brian’s godfather, Mr. Chadwick, is a crotchety unmarried wealthy old man with a blood disease that brings him to the hospital on a regular basis. Who is he going to leave his money to? Brian despises the old man’s relatives who hang around like flies but then uses Susan to get him onto the floor to see Mr. Chadwick after visiting hours are over. Susan resents this, but does it anyway.

Brian begins to suspect that Dr. King is trying to get Mr. Chadwick’s money and seems to become a little unhinged in his obsession with the idea. Even after they have a heated discussion about it in which he snarls at her for her “touching faith in [Dr. King’s] integrity,” she runs to tell Brian of an outing Mr. Chadwick took on his own one afternoon, arranged by Dr. King, and then about a letter that Mr. Chadwick asks her to mail for him to his lawyers. Brian becomes furious with each news bulletin and snaps at her, “I notice you’re quick enough to jump to the defense of Collington-King again.”

In the book’s climax, Brian makes a scene at a local dance, accusing Dr. King of assisting his godfather of buying the lot of land he wanted out from under him and donating it to Mr. Treverly’s charity, and then drives Susan home too fast and gets into an accident. But since she’s unconscious for most of it, the accident is not really exciting or interesting; it’s just over in three sentences.

This is a fairly plodding, quiet story. Not much really happens, and then it ends. It’s not hard to start mentally ticking off the boxes as we pass the obligatory milestones in the plot: Steadying hand on the elbow? Check. Deft surgeon’s fingers? Check. Warm smile and blushing cheeks? Check. It’s not badly written, but our heroine, Susan Brent, has a mere fraction of the starch of her nurse’s cap, and I do tire of hearing about her “well-shaped head” or her outfits replete with “tiny pearl earrings that set off the small ears and the fine shape of her head.” Her eventual rapprochement with—this should not be much of a spoiler—Dr. King isn’t much of a reward, since their previous relationship has been completely pedestrian apart from him twinkling his blue eyes at her. The cover is really the best thing about this book, so after you’ve admired that for a minute or so, just put it aside and be done with it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nurse Pro Tem

By Glenna Finley, ©1967

The trouble between lively, sandy-haired nurse Jane Chapin and handsome Washington attorney Joshua Blake began when they met at the Continental Broadcasting Studios. It was a simple case of mistaken identity—he thought she was an impudent receptionist and she thought he was an aspiring page boy. But what followed turned out to be an intricate matter of international intrigue that involved them both in a dangerous series of romantic double crosses; curious quirks of fate and terrifying realities that threatened both their lives and their love. The truth was the only thing that could save them—but they would have to ignore their own gnawing doubts long enough to find it.

GRADE: A

BEST QUOTE:
“Honestly, Jane, I think you should be turned over my knee and applauded in the Victorian manner—with one hand only.”

REVIEW:
This is the smartest vintage nurse romance novel I have read yet, and Jane Chapin may be the worldliest heroine. She grew up in South America because her father was a petroleum geologist: “I can’t help it if I’ve spent as much time in my life speaking Spanish as I have English,” she tells a friend who laments her poor accent. She attended “a famous eastern nursing school,” and then went to work for an oil company. She just came from a two-year stint for them in South America, and soon will be heading off to the Middle East. In the interim, she’s hired temporarily (hence the pro tem) by Frederick Hall, old family friend and head of a radio broadcasting company that produces international programs.

This book reads like a 1940s film. People are always saying smart, snappy things like, “I’m garnering a built-in resentment against efficiency experts, cocktail circuit Lotharios and State Department statisticians.” In the opening scene, Jane mistakes Joshua Blake, an attorney brought in to boost the company’s production, with an applicant for a page boy’s job, while he thinks she’s a secretary. She’s rude, and he gets mad. There’s a fatal encounter with an ink bottle and another with a filing drawer, and hilarity ensues. When they are forced to have a drink together, she insists on paying for her Tom Collins, and he tricks her into paying for his gin and tonic. And so they develop the relationship of oil and vinegar. “I don’t know when I’ve seen anyone rise to a snide remark more energetically,” he tells her. “You’re in the ring before the bell sounds.”

Her competition for Josh’s affections is “statuesque apparition” Ellen Barton, daughter of a company vice president, who in one scene wears a “wispy black chiffon stole. Her dress was cut in a daring décolleté of the same material but cleverly draped in soft folds from the shoulders to remain in perfect taste. Not a strand of her silver gilt hair strayed from the careless perfection of her pageboy coiffure, and marquise-cut diamond earrings matched the styling of the diamond brooch on her dress.” Yeah, but can she speak Spanish?

The plot takes an interesting turn when company producer Emilio Forcada is bashed on the head. Emilio is married to “the daughter of the dictator of one of those hot little Caribbean islands our government is trying to cajole for a U.S. missile base,” and he’s having an affair with Anita Warren, the head librarian. So there are a number of possible suspects there. But then Jane’s apartment is ransacked, and Fred Hall is also attacked before the bad guy is brought to justice. The clue is a bit of poetry by John Donne left by Emilio after his attack, and Jane and Josh, when they aren’t sniping at each other, are working together to try to figure out who it is. This mystery gives the book a bit more dimension than other vintage nurse romance novels.

Beyond the witty dialogue, the book esteems intelligence. One of Jane’s friends and colleagues is studying for a master’s degree. Emilio is working on a program setting to music famous poems by South Americans — and the book lists actual poets, including Alfonso Reyes, Rubén Darío, Leopoldo Lugones, Jose Chocano (though they misspell Chocano). I knew this was not going to be an ordinary book when I saw the quote from John Donne on the dedication.

One character is, I would swear, gay, though he married. Horace Cole is “a very emotional fellow.” When we meet him, he has “breezed through the dispensary door and collapsed comfortably on the wide leather couch. … He put his hand over his heart theatrically. ‘You see before you a man tottering on the brink of exhaustion,’” he tells her, and his following witticisms — “why the cold and stony?” “why don’t you stop rearranging those instruments? You’ll wear out the shelves,” “I won’t share the couch, but there’s a chair in the corner” — would do Hepburn and Tracy justice.

Jane has an interesting feminist-antifeminist tug of war with herself. On one hand, she absolutely refuses to accept any misogyny from Josh, and repeatedly sets him straight: “Mr. Blake, you’re in the wrong century,” she tells him after he mentions “those rumors of unhappy American women with too much freedom.” She tells Dr. Jamieson she objects to the (then) modern view of finding a spouse: “The irritating aspect is the bland assumption that a woman is expected to ‘queue up’ as if she were waiting for a London bus while a perfectly ordinary, and I might add, rather ill-tempered man decides whether she happens to suit his particular mood of the moment.” Yet, of course, when Josh is around her knees and her backbone go all to jelly: She lets him order her meals in restaurants and “gratefully accepted his guiding touch on her arm” as they pass through a restaurant. To her credit, she recognizes this conflict: “Jane was suddenly appalled at the ease with which she seemed to be deferring to him in all the important decisions.” Josh himself seems to admire her strength, and tells her, “Most of the time you look like a reasonably intelligent kitten,” for what that’s worth. He even calls Jane “a true feminist” — after she’s admitted that the only poets she knows of, other than South Americans, are Christina Rossetti and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I have to take a quick detour to the book’s cover. I am intrigued that the illustration shows the doctor—a surgeon, apparently, from the instrument-covered table beside him—smoking a cigarette. Also, since none of the doctors in the book are surgeons—Jane certainly never participates in a surgery—and it’s a stretch to say that she has any interest in one (Dr. Jamieson suggests that he is smitten, but not heavily, and she has no romantic feelings for him), I have to wonder how this cover came about. But, despite its thin relationship to the actual story, it’s still a pretty good one.

The inside of the book is also not without flaw. Some parts of the plot, such as the explanation as to why Josh has come on board (something about congressional appropriations and government radio transmissions), are a little confusing and require multiple reads to figure out. Also, toward the end of the book, Jane and Josh have spent the entire afternoon together when Jane suddenly realizes she is in love with him, and then thinks, “If Ellen were to be believed, the announcement of an engagement between them was only hours away,” so she abruptly says goodbye forever and walks off. This engagement came as news to me, as we were certainly not witness to any such exchange between the two women. I’d be more forgiving of these out-of-nowhere plot turns if they didn’t involve a key aspect of the story. I’m a little curious how this argumentative couple is going to work out, but the book’s blemishes are not too severe, and they don’t detract from the interesting, smart, and witty story. Nurse Pro Tem is a pleasure to read, and a very enjoyable detour from the usual fare.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nurse in Acapulco

By Ruth McCarthy Sears, ©1971

Candy Conners realized her heart’s desire when she came to work at the fabulous Norte Americano Hospital in Acapulco. While America’s richest and most beautiful people were playing on the beaches and in the villas of this world-famous resort, Candy gave herself wholly to the demands of her job. She was determined not to let romance interfere with her chosen mission, until she met Dr. Marsh Anthony, who was everything she admired in a doctorand everything she mistrusted in a man. Torn by her confused feelings, she was tempted to accept the comforting security offered her by Dr. Blake Warren. Then came a crisis at the hospital. A heart transplant and a famous patient’s desperate fight for life forced Candy to recognize her deepest needs as a nurse ... and as a beautiful young woman.

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTE:
“You’ve never lived until you’ve danced all night to a fiddler’s tune with the caller’s ditties ringing in your ears.”

REVIEW:
Nurse in Acapulco is a pleasant enough piece of fluff, though not anything to pay more than a couple of quarters for at a yard sale. Unless you’re really interested in kidney transplantation, in which case you should go as high as a buck.

Candy Connors (and I have to stop and shake my head at this unfortunate name) is a nurse from Kansas City, Missouri, now working in—that’s right—Acapulco, Mexico. She’s there because she needs to support her sister Kathy and her sister’s four children back home. Kathy married “sleek, charming Val,” who then “took off unceremoniously,” leaving them destitute. Kathy clings to the idea that “he might have met with an accident, might be a victim of amnesia.” But Candy knows better! Those cute, smooth guys are just bad news!

Enter Marsh Anthony, who is “romance itself!” He is attempting to master kidney transplantation, and he and Candy have long chats about kidneys over coffee in the cafeteria. He is transplanting kidneys between monkeys, and not having much success. This, however, has not stopped him from believing that he should attempt a kidney transplant on an actual human, in this case one of Mexico’s most famous bullfighters, who is dying of Bright’s disease of the kidney. (In real life, successful kidney transplants had begun occurring regularly ten years before this book was written.)

Every time Marsh sees Candy, he says unbelievably cheesy things, which are meant to demonstrate his attraction to her. To wit: “ ‘I’d like to take your pulse, honey,’ he said, winking at Candy, ‘But I think we’d better consider business before pleasure.’ ” “Depends on my mood, and the girl I’m with … the very special girl I’m with.” “I’ve just come from four hours in surgery and I’m beat. I need the calming influence of a pretty girl.” Are you ready to say uncle?

Despite these horrible pick-up lines, Candy “felt herself getting weaker and weaker at the nearness of this attractive man.” Yet somehow she manages to fend him off. Then she meets Dr. Blake Warren, who is everything she feels a man should be: “so calm and assured, so efficient and self-possessed,” the kind of man who, when he invites you out for a walk on the beach, tells you, “Put on some sturdy walking sandals.”

Mexico itself is described lovingly, and indeed these descriptions may be the best part of the book. But there’s the little problem that the country seems to be filled with, well, Mexicans: “The natives [are] unlearned,” “Mexicans are so emotional.” When Candy meets a young girl, “Immediately the child leaned against her with confidence, beaming. ‘I like you,’ she said. … Candy held the small warm body. How trusting and sweet these children of her adopted land—how beautiful! … The soft rich voices, the beautiful manners, the warmth of Mexican affection—anything would seem pallid indeed in comparison. Even the principles of these people were appealing and sincere—quick tears for the unfortunate and quick joy in the simple pleasures of the easy-going life.” Candy appreciates them, yes, but I find more than a bit of condescension in her approval.

The plot turns are just a little obvious: the dying rich patient leaves a nurse all his money, an identical twin is seen kissing another woman and is mistaken for his brother, and Kathy’s husband Val—I just have to tell—really does have amnesia, but finally remembers who he is and comes home!!! There’s a weird section in which Candy goes rushing off to the mountains of Oaxaca to find a relative of the bullfighter to donate a kidney, and brings home an elderly distant cousin—who then turns out to be unsuitable as a donor. For the rest of the book he hangs out at Candy’s house waiting to be called to the surgery that isn’t going to happen, and Candy and her roommate keep asking each other, “What are we going to do with Uncle Jurada?” I found it to be a lazy, hackneyed story without much going for it. But kidney transplantation is described in great detail, so if you’re interested in nephrology, you might get more out of this book than I did.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nurse Marcie's Island

By Arlene Hale, ©1964
Cover illustration by Bob Schinella

Returning home to Barr Island to practice nursing, Marcie Roberts, R.N., dreamed happily of the sunny, lazy island, the joy of being with Pop again, and the pleasure of working as old Dr. John’s office nurse. But before the end of her first day, Marcie realized that everything had changed. Pop had become a strangely embittered man, and kindly Dr. John was gone. In his place, was the aloof Dr. Ainsworth—handsome, cold and brusque. Marcie knew her job represented a challenge to herself—as a nurse, and as a woman.

GRADE: B+


BEST QUOTE:
“He looks at me with those eyes and I feel like I’m under a microscope, like he’s probing and dissecting and everything else doctors do to some interesting little microbe!”

REVIEW:

This book was published by Ace Books, which may now be my favorite publishing house, if only for the last page, which advertises other titles: “Hootenanny Nurse … He brought a new song to her heart. A Challenge for Nurse Melanie … Emergency of the heart.” The cover line on Nurse Marcie’s Island doesn’t disappoint: “Heart adrift on a sea of romance.” Of course, this means absolutely nothing, and in no way relates to anything in the book, but, along with the well done and unique cover illustration, it is certainly promising.

The story isn’t quite as good as its packaging, but it’s pretty good. Marcellina Roberts is returning to her home, Barr Island, after being away for nursing school. She moves in with her father and takes a job with old Dr. John Winthrop’s office. But it turns out that Dr. John is not there—he’s been taken to a hospital on the mainland for a bum gallbladder. Subbing for him is Dr. Logan Ainsworth, a cold, aloof man who demands punctuality and “personal neatness” but is nonetheless a good doctor, and she grudgingly comes to respect him, as he does her. But why did kindly old Dr. John choose Dr. Ainsworth to take his place? What is their relationship?

The old Barr mansion, which has been deserted for years, suddenly has a light on in the window. Julian Barr, “the undisputed king of her childhood and first love of her life,” is back—but he’s changed. He’s distant, cold, and no longer interested in his previous frivolous lifestyle. He was best friends with Marcie’s brother, Willie, whom their father has completely excised from his life because Willie did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fisherman on the island. Willie hasn’t been heard from in years, but Julian never asks about him. “Which was odd,” Marcie thinks. “The two of them had been inseparable companions until Willie had rebelled against Pop and left the island.”

As far as the medicine in the book goes, the gallbladder case is a little disappointing in its inaccuracy. Dr. John, though experiencing biliary colic, is kept in the hospital for two weeks for some reason before being rushed into surgery when the gallbladder finally perforates. The surgery is explained as being very dangerous, and Dr. John’s chances of surviving the surgery are given as 50/50. Today the same operation is a completely routine day surgery, but according to my copy of Understanding Surgery, published in 1961, even at that time removal of the gallbladder was nowhere near this serious. So I was a little disappointed that the author didn’t bother with the ten minutes of research it would have taken to come up with something a little more realistic. The copy editors didn’t work too hard, either: If you look closely, you’ll find curious typos such as seeemd and gropped.

But the story moves briskly along, and both the characters and the townie vs. tourist atmosphere of the island are well-drawn. The characters actually evolve over the course of the story, which in itself sets this book apart from its peers. The story has a few questions that need to be resolved, and even if the answers are a little hackneyed, they play well. The final crisis seems a little drummed up, but it did actually make me a little verklempt (though not over the starring couple), a first for me with this genre. So on the whole, this book is easily worth the time it takes to read it.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Nurse for Apple Valley

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1964

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTES:
“That’s a pretty wonderful thing to happen to a girl, Debbie,” Luana told her gently: “not ever to be lonely or have to make her own decisions.”

REVIEW:
As much as I had looked forward to my next Jane Converse title after reading the delightful Surf Safari Nurse, I dreaded my next Peggy Gaddis title after reading the infuriating Dr. Merry’s Husband. But as Jane’s
Nurse on Trial was not as good, nor is Peggy’s A Nurse for Apple Valley quite as bad. While still retaining some of Peggy’s more irritating writing techniques, such as involving us in an entirely different storyline halfway through the book, this story did not make me scream in frustration at the end. Not exactly high praise, but that’s the best I can do with this one.

Luana Ramsdell starts out as a bit of a snot, when on the opening page she is horrified and indignant when her friend, Denise, asks her to take over her nursing assignment for six weeks when Denise is called off to the Caribbean to attend her ailing grandmother. Luana agrees to go to this hill town about 100 miles from Atlanta—it could be right next door to Dr. Merry’s River Gap—but Denise makes Luana promise to keep her mitts off Taylor Culbertson. She thinks the valley’s “leading citizen” is just the bee’s knees, and though he hasn’t proposed quite yet, she plans to make him tumble for her when she gets back.

So Luana sets to work for Dr. Pete Anderson, who is hoping to retire, except there is no doctor in their right mind who would agree to work in such a “ridiculous little hollow in the hills,” as Luana calls it. Yet somehow, she begins to feel “completely at home in Apple Valley.” She soon meets Tay, and though they have little interaction throughout the book, whenever they do she seems to lose control of her bodily functions: “For no sensible reason at all she felt her face go pink with color.” “She caught a look in his eyes that was warm and admiring and that for some completely absurd reason made her heart leap a little.” So every 20 pages or so we witness warm stares and blushing just to remind us that there is some attraction between the two, though you’d never guess it from their dialogue or the amount of time they spend together.

Enter Couple B of the story, the one that steals the limelight until Couple A can be brought together in the book’s last three pages. Debbie Lanford hates all medical professionals because her mother received blood during an operation, became infected with hepatitis from the transfusion, and died of cirrhosis. So when she meets Luana, it doesn’t go well. “I’d hoped when Denise left that we’d be spared having another of your kind up here,” she says. Debbie also runs into Derry Blanding, who is in Apple Valley on vacation but is cagey about his past. He is instantly smitten with Debbie and tries to buy her an engagement ring, but when a busload of kids gets into an accident and he instantly rolls up his sleeves and starts scrubbing, things look grim for the couple’s future. Derry, you’ll be stunned to learn, is actually Bland Deering, an esteemed physician scoping out Apple Valley as a possible site to spend his career. (And yes, his name is really Bland.)

Debbie refuses to see him after his occupation comes to light, but he hunts her down, grabs her by the arm, and tells her, “You’re going to marry me, and that’s that! And you’re going to get over this nonsense about hating doctors and people who are connected in any way with the medical profession. Is that clear?” That’s all it takes: “Her face was wreathed with a radiant smile that lit twin candles in her eyes, and she cried out softly, “Oh, Derry … I’m so tired of deciding things for myself.” This devolves into a nauseating antifeminist conversation in which she agrees to let him “boss me around” because “you’re so much smarter than I am!” He replies, “Now that … is what I call a perfect basis for a perfect marriage—a docile wife and an adoring husband.” A couple of pages later, Debbie—who has previously worn no makeup, a flannel shirt, jeans, brown boots, and a shabby leather jacket—has apparently gone shopping: She appears “smartly dressed in a well-cut linen sheath of a shade that matched her eyes, a soft white sweater swung carelessly across her shoulders.” It must be love.

I have to pause here at the “wherever my man goes, whatever my man wants to do, that’s what I want too!” business. I acknowledge that this book is now more than 45 years old, but did this sort of attitude ever play well? Weren’t nurses, as subjects of romance novels, supposed to appeal to the general public because nursing was one of the few professions open to women, allowing them independence? Luana’s character is admired for her work, and in her perfunctory rapprochement with Tay, no mention is made of her giving up her job. Even Dr. Merry, drippy as she is, is completely dedicated to her career. Is Debbie the dishrag a means of playing it safe with readers who might be nervous about Luana’s self-sufficiency? Were there ever any such readers, or did the author just think there might be? It was, after all, just a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique blew the lid off the idea that women enjoyed being treated like children all their lives.

In another culturally curious passage, Dr. Pete has just delivered a couple’s fifth child. The father, upon finding out that the infant was his first son, “beamed all over his long-jawed face and said proudly, ‘Well, now, Granny, another hoe-hand!’ ” Dr. Pete tells Luana, “He’ll be kind and gentle with Betsy now, for a while, anyway.” When Luana expresses her surprise, he says, “Don’t you ever run into brutal husbands back in Brady Memorial?” Luana answers, “Only a few husbands are brutal and beat their wives.” And Dr. Anderson responds by telling her to run along and get some rest, because tomorrow may be a busy day. Apparently beating your wife, unfortunate though it might be, didn’t bring on anything more than a momentarily furrowed brow in 1964, or at least in this book, as it certainly didn’t warrant any action on the part of the beaten woman’s physician. Another reminder that the “good old days” maybe weren’t so good, after all.

But back to the book: The writing itself isn’t painful. There are the colorful hill country characters, like Aunt Judy, who is, naturally, a witch: “You folks come in and set a spell and let me get you some cider,” she tells Luana when Dr. Pete first introduces them. “It’s been setting quite a spell, and it’s getting right lively.” But it can be sloppy: two consecutive paragraphs start with the same sentence, “Dr. Anderson shot her a swift glance,” not so original that it bears repeating. And all the pink cheeks, as quoted above, are not exactly stretching your writing chops. Then there’s the Peggy Gaddis patented diversionary plot tactic: Bland/Derry and Denise fill Chapters 5 to 13, leaving us just 15 pages to resolve Luana and Tay, in an ending that is bewildering in its rapidity, not to mention completely unbelievable, all that blushing aside. So while it is possible to get through this book, it’s not completely free from irritation.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cover Girl Nurse

By Patricia Libby, ©1963

Merridy Martin had learned the truth about her glamor as a cover girl the hard way. She had lost her one chance at happiness in an automobile accident that had killed her interne fiance, and left her lying injured and despairing in a hospital bed. It was then that Merridy realized how selfish and heartless her glamor world was, and made her decision to become a nurse. So she buried Merridy martin, cover girl, and Merridy martin, R.N. was born. But could such a glamorous past remain buried or would its ghost rob Merridy of a second chance at happiness?

GRADE: A-

BEST QUOTES:
“She’s a real Hawaiian and has a heart as big as the muumuus she wears.”

“Someone should set Sheila straight. She’s playing for keeps, but Clint is playing for kicks.”

“The surgeon’s deft fingers that could incise her heart even as they did a patient.”

REVIEW:
This book is, hands down, the campiest vintage nurse romance novel I have read yet. It gets off to a bang on the very first page as Merridy Martin, former cover girl, is about to land in Hawaii for her first job as a nurse: Her seatmate “was frankly curious about the beautiful, copper-haired girl who had sobbed in her sleep.” And the tone is carried all the way through to the final page: “A sedative for a broken heart, I suppose. But it was the wrong prescription.” I mean, really, it’s pretty great stuff.

Merridy’s fiancé, a former intern, was killed in a car accident, which prompted her to bury her heart and put her shallow career behind her: “The truth was clear. Bob’s world gave. Her world took. His had depth and meaning. Hers was glittering surface and the pursuit of self. … She would dedicate her life to helping the sick and frightened by becoming a nurse. And in a small way she might make Bob’s death seem less futile.” After graduation, she is invited to work at Moana Kai, a hospital on Oahu, by her nursing school friend Sheila. About ten minutes after her arrival there she meets Jay Flemming, obstetrical intern (why are they always interns?), at a luau. Jay puts the moves on, but Merridy puts the brakes on: “ ‘So you think that kissing is the kind of therapy I need to—to loosen up a crippled heart?’ she demanded. ‘Your eyes are shooting sparks, Merridy. Yes, that’s my prescription. And Dr. Flemming will be glad to fill it personally.’ ” Not long after this, a knife-wielding schizophrenic patient crashes the maternity ward and attempts to kidnap his wife and newborn son; Merridy beans the man with a vase of flowers and knocks him unconscious. And that’s just a few pages into Chapter 3!

Snappy dialogue aside, this book does have a few faults. One is that there are too many characters in it. We are introduced to no fewer than 14 of Merridy’s patients, many of whom appear multiple times, and keeping track of them can be a bit confusing. Not to mention all the doctors and other nurses, each with romantic dramas of their own to work out. In addition, the author seems to believe that every good plot turn should be telegraphed from the mountaintops: “A feeling that exploded into bone-chilling horror moments later.” “She was totally unprepared for the news that Sheila brought with her.” “She might have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the inquest.”

Then there’s the contradictory racism. One doctor is torn about marrying his nurse girlfriend because her mother is Hawaiian, and the book emphatically supports this relationship. Yet another girl, caught out with a beach boy who is Filipino and Hawaiian, causes a scandal. “Why? Why would she do it? An Oriental—oh, my God, they’ll crucify us in the papers,” sobs the girl’s mother. Merridy herself “drew a sigh of relief” when she finds out that the girl was not in love with the boy. And there’s the offhand remark about a patient’s work with the “suspicious, ignorant Chinese.”

Medicine has an actual presence in the book, though it’s confusing by today’s standards. There’s an in-depth description of a corneal transplant, and how Merridy nurses the patient through the difficult recovery (he is not allowed to move even the tiniest muscle for ten days following the surgery: “Even a smile would endanger the corneal graft”). The schizophrenic is given an injection of morphine to keep him unconscious; today’s standby, haloperidol, wasn’t in use yet.

These flaws, however, are vastly outweighed by the laugh-out-loud writing, the kind of dialogue you will repeat to your friends and anyone else sitting near you. This book had me at the title, and the font on the cover is an added delight, even if the gal in the illustration should sue the doctor who gave her that nose.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Nurse and the Orderly

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1964

“I dare you to fall in love with me,” he said. Dr. Nat gave Nurse Lacey a slow, wry smile. Then his arms encircled her and drew her close. His lips brushed against hers. Suddenly Lacey broke away. She was trembling. “I don’t want you to think that kiss meant anything,” she said. “It was just a pleasant way to say goodnight. I haven’t forgotten I’m going to marry Jeff Ward.” But Lacey was lying. And both she and Dr. Nat knew it.

GRADE: A

BEST QUOTE:
“Ted needs his job, you know he does. His sister has to have all sorts of expensive treatments if she’s to lick that awful paralysis.”

REVIEW:
The eponymous nurse in this book is Lacey Drake. The orderly is Ted Tracey, the boyfriend of Lacey’s roommate, Joan Webster. Now, just put those ideas right out of your head: I can absolutely promise you that there are no shenanigans between Lacey and Ted, or even hints of possible shenanigans, which does make me wonder who named this book, and had they actually read it when they did? So although I spent much of this book vainly waiting for the red herring of the title to come through, it is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable story.

Lacey is caring for Ricky Ward, a six-year-old boy who had been lost in the woods for three days and is recovering from pneumonia. His father is doctor Jeff Ward, and Jeff is still mourning the death of his beloved wife Marcia in a car crash two years ago. Ricky had run away from his absolute “Gila monster” of a grandmother. Dorothy Ward beats Ricky, dominates Jeff’s life with an iron fist, and broke up Jeff’s marriage, which ended just before Marcia died. When the story opens, Jeff has persuaded Lacey to marry him because he needs her help to manage his mother and son.

Just as this happens, remote and gorgeous Dr. Nat Harrington also decides to declare his love for her. “I had my life all planned,” Nat tells her. “The trouble is, I didn’t know I’d ever find a girl like you.” But she promised Jeff! What to do, what to do? Meantime, little Ricky is convinced that his mother is still alive. Ted the orderly abets this hypothesis by placing an ad in the Los Angeles Express, and now Jeff is getting strange phone calls, and letters and gifts are arriving that could be from Marcia. How will it all turn out? Well, you can easily guess, but that’s not why you should read this book.

The characters are thoroughly enjoyable. Joan is a nursing student who is “not the stuff of which dedicated nurses are made.” She sneaks cigarettes in the patients’ bathrooms, and she is constantly agonizing over her endocrinology class—she can’t even pronounce pituitary. But she’s feisty: “They had a long discussion as to whether or not Joan should fix Ted’s favorite spaghetti sauce. If she did, she was a fool. What she should feed the bum if he showed up was a dish of steamed worms.”

Then there’s Dorothy Ward, who is truly an ogre. If slapping Ricky around isn’t enough, imagine saying this to a little boy: “Your mother is dead, Richard. She was a worthless woman to start with. You imagine she loved you, but she didn’t. She didn’t care anything about you. She deserted you and your father. Then she got a divorce because she didn’t want to see you any more. And after that, just as she deserved, she was killed in a traffic accident. She was burned alive.”

The best medical moment is when Dorothy, caught abusing Ricky at the hospital, takes the easy way out: “The lady had clutched at her heart, moaned that she was dying, been given medication and sent home in an ambulance.” How medicine has changed: At that time she would have stayed in the hospital for a week if she’d had a baby, but chest pain—which today would be an immediate admission to rule out a heart attack—buys her some pills and a ride home.

It’s no real shock how everything sorts itself out, but the ride is lots of fun. The writing is humorous and snappy, and you’ll tear through this book in under two hours. This is exactly the sort of story you hope for when you pick up a vintage nurse romance novel.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Night Nurse

By Rosamund Hunt (pseud. of Miriam Lynch), ©1962
Cover illustration by Edrien King

Young and lovely Sheila Hayden had been planning to marry Kenny Jamison for as long as she could remember. But when Sheila became a night nurse at Mercer City Hospital, Kenny showed signs of growing resentment, and asked that she resign. Sheila, however, had fallen in love with her work. Moreover, a political campaign to smear the hospital made her presence vital to the pressured staff. Vehemently Sheila insisted that Kenny had no cause to be jealous of her job, or of the brilliant young Dr. Joel Alexander, who was so often at her side. It took a mysterious kidnapping and a new and vicious attack on the hospital’s good name to force the lovely nurse to face some painful truths—about Kenny, about Dr. Alexander, and about her own buffeted heart.

GRADE: C


REVIEW:
Sheila Hayden, recent nursing school graduate, has decided to work on the pediatric ward—you guessed it—on the night shift. Although her friends and family are a bit baffled by her decision, she likes working nights, and she needs the extra money to help support her family. Until now, Sheila’s uncle Dan, who took Sheila’s family in when her father died, has been their sole support. He’s good-hearted, but he’s also a bit of a sap, with “wild enthusiasms for new money-making schemes.” Now Dan has decided to cast his lot with Herbie McVey, who is running for mayor, and so is looking for dirt on the hospital to further McVey’s claim that the current mayor is doing a bad job. Dan tries to pump Sheila for gossip about the hospital, but Sheila refuses to get involved.

Sheila is engaged, of course, to longtime boyfriend Kenny Jamison. This relationship does not bode well, however; on page 11, we are told, “It had always been a one-sided romance, with Sheila doing all the favors and making all the concessions.” Not exactly a marriage of true minds. So who else is there on the horizon? Well, there’s that resident at the hospital, Dr. Joel Alexander, who is “unmarried, unencumbered, and to boot, is the best looking, has the most divine smile,” or so says a nursing buddy of Sheila’s. She and Joel get off on the wrong foot when he snaps that she is not capable on her first night at work of caring for 30 patients, including one motherless boy who is recovering from diabetic shock. “Why, she didn’t even like Dr. Joel Alexander! She would never like him!” Somehow I’m betting she’s going to eat those words.

The book offers several questions to unravel. First, there’s a possible affair between the hospital’s married senior physican and the director of nurses. Then someone breaks into the narcotics cabinet but does not take anything; the newspaper carries a big story about the scandal, which furthers McVey’s campaign. Could dear Uncle Dan be involved? Finally, someone kidnaps the diabetic kid while Sheila is on duty, and the resolution of that situation is the peak of the book, after which everything wraps itself into a tidy little bow.

I once worked as a nurse’s aide at a hospital, one year on the night shift, and the book’s description of the job did have some semblance to reality. “When six o’clock came, Sheila and Mrs. Osborne, the aide, began to make preparations for A.M. care. This was something which those outside the hospital could not understand, that patients had to be awakened at the crack of dawn to have their faces washed and then were left with dragging time until the breakfast trays were served.” In my day it was vital signs, EKGs, blood sugar checks, and rounds by the surgical team that my 30 patients were awakened for. But I did get a little thrill of recognition from the story at this point.

Unfortunately, that was the only excitement Night Nurse brought me. It’s not badly written, and I got through it without the least bit of annoyance. But I didn’t laugh, either. It takes itself too seriously, and the author did not spend much time dreaming up the plot. There’s just no fun to it, so even though I wouldn’t say the book is bad, I still have to call it a failure.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nurse on Trial

By Jane Converse
(pseud. of Adele Kay Maritano), ©1966

Jennifer Mellin, R.N., is on trial—before the world, before her own conscience. For she was the last person to see her mother, ex-movie star Angela Di Marco, alive. Exhausted by caring for her hypochondriac mother, her professional senses numbed by a never-ceasing tirade of hysterical demands, had Jennie in fact given Angela the wrong pills from the vast array of bottles in the medicine cabinet? Was Angela’s death—as her wardrobe mistress, Bessie Wykoff, hinted maliciously—the result of foul play?

GRADE: B-

REVIEW:
I was looking forward to my next Jane Converse title after the fabulous Surf Safari Nurse, but Nurse on Trial was a bit of a letdown. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t have the humor or even the fine writing of its sister. They were both written the same year, so maybe Jane shot the wad on the Safari and coasted through the Trial.

Jennifer Mellin is the daughter of a famous faded movie star, Angela Di Marco, who is a Garbo and a Joan Crawford all rolled into one glorious mess. Jennifer is obliged to leave the side of her doctor fiancé to nurse her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, because she is told that Mommie Dearest is on her deathbed. The scenario is compelling: “Unaccountably breathless Jennifer started toward the bed. It was a monstrously large round affair, mounted on a circular dais, and surrounded by sheer white curtains that were affixed to a curved track in the ceiling. The curtains were drawn back now to reveal Angela propped up against at least a dozen pillows and covered by a custom-made gold-threaded quilt of white satin. Two Siamese cats dozed at the foot of the bed. She wore a black marabou bed jacket over a low-cut nightgown of powder blue lace … The red-gold hair was brushed into a high Grecian halo on top of her head, an arrangement that brought her pale, drawn features into startling focus.”

After this introduction, we go round and round on the Hollywood starlet carousel: green pills, pink pills, smeared mascara, scrapbooks and clippings at 3:30 a.m., cigarettes, broken mirrors, black velvet negligees, bourbon and peppermints. The usual manipulations: “I wanted to spare you, Jennie. Sometimes I’m in such terrible pain, I don’t know what I’m doing.” “Let me die in peace!” “You haven’t noticed that I’m wearing the Dior. Careful, Jennie! You’ll muss me up!” “Lies, lies, lies! Is this why you came here? To slander me?” “Get me something for my nerves …”

For 76 pages the story staggers drunkenly along on its spike-heeled gold kid mules. We know that Angela is doomed—the back cover tells us so—but it isn’t until page 112 that she actually kicks off. There is no jury trial at all, as Angela’s doctor decides she died of cirrhosis. (Curiously, she has left-sided pain—the liver is on the right—and no jaundice, but then, Angela’s not much of a nurse: As much as she despises her mother’s self-medication, she always caves and gives her more pills.) Perhaps her trial is more metaphoric than legal, but she doesn’t acquit herself very admirably, inexplicably helpless to save herself from the manipulation or her mother from disease, organic or addictive.

The burning question, as condensed on the back cover, is whether Jennie poisoned her mother: “I don’t remember what I gave my mother last night. … Maybe I killed her!” But with just 16 pages between Angela’s death and the end of the book, we are not left to wonder for very long. The premise of the book is good, if a little hackneyed, but after it sets up, it doesn’t know what to do with itself. It can barely be called a romance, as Jennie is happily engaged from the opening chapter, and there is never any tension about that relationship. I’ve read books that are a lot worse, but I also know that Jane can do a lot better.