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The White Linen Nurse

August 6, 2009

So, the real reason I keep reading things by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott is that every once in a while, I reread The Indiscreet Letter and fall in love with it all over again–with the Young Electrician, and the alternating pink and blue lisle undershirts, and the Traveling Salesman’s wife and the whole utterly impossible conversation. I reread it yesterday, so today of course I had to read The White Linen Nurse.

I love coming to something new by an author I’m pretty familiar with and recognizing all the things that make it impossible for it to have been written by anybody else. Especially when I realize new things about the author at the same time. So, The White Linen Nurse was like that, and as such I found it really interesting.

The eponymous character is Rae Malgregor, who, as the story opens, is about to graduate from nursing school. But it’s spring, and she’s tired, and she looks into the mirror in her room and finds that even when she takes off her tight collar and gets off her feet, she can’t really rest because she can’t get the noble expression off of her face. And there’s all these mental disconnects going on for her, because her face is  pretty, but too doll-like, so much so that it doesn’t look real, and then her hands are strong and capable, and she feels like they match up better with the Senior Surgeon’s face than with her own. The Senior Surgeon is named Lendicott Faber, but he’s almost always called the Senior Surgeon.

Anyway, Rae sort of goes into hysterics in a fairly believable way, and then goes to the Superintendent and tells her that she doesn’t want to be a nurse anymore. The Superintendent calls in the Senior Surgeon, who sort of couldn’t care less, but also remembers that she’s had a string of patients die recently. So he’s like, “don’t worry about it, they would have died anyway, you moron,” (the “you moron” being implied). Also he realizes that he has found her very helpful in the past, and offers to take her on a drive to a meningitis patient’s house.

Also along on this ride is the Senior Surgeon’s daughter, the Little Crippled Girl. She’s pretty bratty, and she tells Rae straight out that she’s horrible because that’s the only thing that makes her father pay attention to her. So they sort of make friends, and then on the drive back, they crash, and the Senior Surgeon gets trapped under the car. Rae has to drive it off of him, and there are lots of levers involved, so he has to give her very detailed instructions, and her success depends on her remembering them all. She is successful, though–she does the whole thing pretty calmly, and only afterward does the Senior Surgeon realize that the car has been on fire the whole time.

Somewhere in there, he proposes marriage, not because he’s in love with Rae, but because she’s capable and good at following instructions, and he’s just realized that he and the Little Crippled Girl need someone to take care of them. Also, their housekeepers keep quitting. When Rae protests that she hasn’t got the brains required for the job, he says that he’s got that part taken care of himself–he just needs an extra pair of hands.

(Speaking of brains, there’s a bit later on where Rae tells the Senior Surgeon that she found something that smelled a bit off in the pocket of his old ulster. He’s like, “that was the medulla oblongata of a learned theologian,” and she’s like, “well, it smelled.”)

He also tells her about the dipsomania that runs in his family (dipsomania! how often do you get to use that word?) and how he deals with it: by not touching alcohol for eleven months of the year, and then spending the entire month of June drunk, camping in the woods.

When she eventually says yes to his proposal, Rae insists that they get married on June 1st, which gives her time to adjust to running his household while he’s not part of it. He returns home to find that she’s redecorated half the house in pink.

When you read this kind of story, you know to expect the main characters to eventually fall in love. And they do, but not exactly in the way you would expect. The Senior Surgeon continues to be prickly, and Rae continues to constantly step on his toes, metaphorically, and their household doesn’t run as smoothly as maybe it should. Rae works so hard that she faints, and the Senior Surgeon lets loose her pet canaries, and a lot of the people he operates on die.

I’ve written before about how, while I really enjoy romances from this era, they always kind of stop working for me at the end. There are two basic scenarios: the first has an interesting couple with an entertainingly difficult relationship suddenly becoming all soppy when they get together. Tension? gone. The second has a boring couple being interesting only because of the uncertain state of their relationship. Uncertainty gone? Tension gone too.

This is not a problem in The White Linen Nurse. Their prickly relationship remains prickly. Eventually, the Senior Surgeon just says something along the lines of, “remember how I said I wasn’t going to be in love with you? Well, now I’m going to be,” and she’s like,  “okay,” and “but I really wanted to see a Ferris wheel,” and then they go on vacation. And there’s no indication that they’re going to be any less lousy at being married to each other. So that’s pretty cool.

It’s all very Eleanor Hallowell Abbott-y. I tried to figure out what that entailed, beyond the writing style and the ridiculous character titles, and decided that the most Hallowell Abbott-y thing about the book was the part where Rae was having hysterics. It was something about the way she talked. And then I realized that the thing common to all of Hallowell Abbott’s characters is that, for whatever reason, they lose the filters between their brains and their mouths: Rae losing her usual composure in a mini nervous breakdown, Ruthy in The Fairy Prince, saying things that no adult would ever say, Carl in Molly-Make-Believe telling Molly more about himself than he’s ever told anyone, Eve Edgarton’s complete ignorance of social conventions, and conversations between strangers on trains in The Indiscreet Letter (both the main three characters, and the man who told the Youngish Girl his life story).

So. That is what I think is unique about Eleanor Hallowell Abbott. And sometimes it works pretty well, and sometimes it doesn’t, and nothing will ever be as awesome as The Indiscreet Letter, but The White Linen Nurse is pretty good–definitely better than The Fairy Prince, at any rate.

Also, check out this indignant letter to The New York Times, protesting their bad review of the book.

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