Emily Blackburn is getting ready for yet another high society party, but feels trapped and jaded. She is only 16 years old and is already bored with her rich, pampered life in 1899 New York City. She lives in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and is jealous that her 25-year-old maid gets to do fun things like eat dinner with her milk wagon-driving boyfriend in Chinatown, and visit Coney Island. Emily is not allowed to visit such middle-class places.
Emily is escorted to her cousin Annabelle’s party by Worthington Bates, a childhood friend whose father is a partner in her family’s firm. She, Annabelle, and Worth grew up together. Her parents consider Worth the only suitable escort until her coming out party in a year. Turns out Annabelle is becoming a stuck-up beyotch. Emily remembers back a few months earlier, during Annabelle’s 17th birthday celebration, when she started to suspect that Worth may have more-than-friendly feelings for her. Then she saw her brother Edward being chastised for playing with a boy “below his station” and realized that her life was empty and meaningless, and if it continued on the same trajectory, it would always remain so.
Two days before they are set to sail to Europe for an extended trip, Emily is shopping with her mother and Annabelle. She starts getting overwhelmed again at the thought that this is her life forever – buying clothes for parties, then getting invited to more parties and needing to buy more clothes. She faints in the middle of the store. The family’s doctor, Dr. Marstellar, makes a house call and assures her she’s fine.
When the day comes for the family to leave for Europe, Emily’s little brother begs her not to go. She feels his forehead and realizes he’s burning up with fever. She tries to tell her mom they should postpone the trip, but her mother says that’s nonsense and refuses to even go check on him. Emily declares that she is not leaving him, and her mother says fine – Emily can stay and they will send her post cards.
Two days later, Edward’s fever gets worse. Emily is at home alone with a skeleton crew of house servants, and they call the doctor to come see him. Accompanying Dr. Marstellar is a young medical student named Stephen Reed. Emily accidentally insults him when she mistakes him for the doctor’s driver, and they exchange some barbs. Stephen seems to be prejudiced about rich people and is not shy about letting Emily know this. Though Stephen is being rather rude and angry, Emily “felt a strange attraction” to him. Just then, a maid calls that Edward has scarlet fever.
A few days later, Edward falls into a coma. The maid sends for Dr. Marstellar, but he cannot be found, so Emily takes it upon herself to go to Presbyterian Hospital to find him or Stephen, even though it is considered improper for her to do so without a chaperone. She sees Stephen in the children’s ward, appearing way more sweet and friendly as he tends to patients than when she met him. He goes home with her while they wait for a different doctor to arrive, and he checks on Edward. Emily listens in as Stephen talks gently to a comatose Edward, revealing he has a little sister named Nancy who he could not afford to buy a doll. When Emily tries to talk to him about his family, he shuts down on her again. After the real doctor arrives, Stephen leaves quickly.
Edward starts to get better. Emily’s parents return her telegram with a message that coming home early would be “impossible.” Fueled by her anger at them, Emily sets out alone again to see New York City by herself and experience some freedom. She finds that being able to shop alone doesn’t satisfy her though – she needs direction and purpose. She returns to Presbyterian Hospital, not sure what she’s doing there. She runs into a student nurse named Maude Adams. Maude tells Emily that Stephen is only 18, brilliant, and skipped a bunch of grades. Dr. Marstellar is his benefactor, paying for his medical school. Emily quizzes Maude on what it’s like to be a nurse, and noting Emily’s interest, Maude suggests Emily become a volunteer at the hospital.
Emily is tempted by the thought of volunteering, especially if it would put her in close proximity with Stephen, but she doesn’t think it would ever be allowed. Her maid Meg arrives back from Europe, saying she took an earlier boat with Annabelle and Worth. Emily’s parents are still in Europe.
Stephen is surprised to see Emily when she shows back up at the hospital. She tells him about wanting to become a volunteer, and Stephen tells her the hospital is not a place for the childish whims of a rich little girl. She should go back to Fifth Avenue where she belongs. Emily basically tells him to go eff himself. Emily is granted permission to become a volunteer by the head nurse, Mrs. Harrigan.
Despite Worth questioning her decision and Annabelle threatening to send a telegram to her parents tattling on her, Emily shows up for her first day as a nursing aide. She spends hours on her first assignment – scrubbing floors. Next she has to empty bedpans, which almost makes her gag. Emily isn’t sure she’ll ever return to the hospital after her miserable day, but then she runs into Stephen, who again teases her about not belonging there. That makes her determined to come back.
Over a week later Emily is working in the children’s ward and recites poetry to help them fall asleep, which earns Stephen’s admiration. Then her father’s butler shows up, saying her parents are distraught about her working in the hospital and demand she come home at once. She faces them and they demand she stop going to the hospital and start abiding by their rules. She rails against how stupid their rules are and points out how they couldn’t come back for Edward, but one whiff of her disgracing the family name and they were on the next boat home.
The next month Emily sneaks back to the hospital for some kind of closure and to say goodbyes she didn’t have the chance to make when she was yanked away by the butler. She finds Maude and tells her that her parents won’t let her come back. Maude tells her that Stephen was upset when that man took her away and he asked about her, and Emily gets Maude to find out Stephen’s address for her. Emily goes to Stephen’s apartment the day before Thanksgiving with a basket full of fancy food like pâté and petit fours, and a French doll for his sister. Stephen is not there when she arrives, but his mother lets her come in. Emily sees for the first time that his sister Nancy is crippled. The neighborhood is bustling and poor, and the apartment is small and plain. His mother is wary of Emily and says they cannot accept her gifts, and then Stephen arrives. He tells Emily they don’t need her charity, and he didn’t ask her to come. She flees in humiliation.
Worth confesses to Emily that he has fallen in love with Annabelle, but he thinks she loves someone else. Emily had thought he loved her, but it was Annabelle all along. Emily’s mother calls Dr. Marstellar to come look at Emily because she has been “listless” lately and not eating as much. He examines Emily and proclaims that she is fine, and Emily asks for more information about Stephen. Dr. Marstellar met him when he used to donate one day a week providing medical care in Stephen’s neighborhood. Stephen became his buggy driver at age 14 and showed a large interest in medicine, so Dr. Marstellar got him back in school. His father died when he was 9. His sister Nancy broke her leg and it never healed correctly because she didn’t get to a hospital. He could possibly reset it, but Nancy’s mother is scared of hospitals, despite Stephen working there. Dr. Marstellar describes the “fatalist” attitude of the poor. Then he warns Emily that Stephen is a lone wolf.
Emily decides to return to Stephen’s apartment around Christmas and not get kicked out this time. She brings secondhand gifts from her siblings and her own closet, plus non-fancy food like bread, cheese, and gingerbread cookies. When she arrives, Stephen’s mother says Stephen is not there, but Emily says she has gifts from her siblings including the little boy that Stephen tended to. His mom lets her in, and they have tea. Emily is reciting poems to Nancy and making her laugh when Stephen walks in. He sees the food she brought and again tells her they don’t need charity. Emily responds angrily and turns to leave. His mother tells Stephen to get her in a hansom cab outside. Stephen says his mom and sister may like her, but his feelings haven’t changed. Emily thinks he likes her but doesn’t want to admit it. Stephen says they are worlds apart and it would be doomed to failure. She calls him a snob as he gets a cab to pull over and tells her to go home. Then he grabs her and kisses her roughly. When they part, he again tells her to go home.
The next day, Christmas, Emily takes a bunch of candy, fruit, and extra new toys her siblings don’t want and sneaks to the hospital while her parents are out. She delivers all of the goods to the children’s ward and reads them Christmas poems. Stephen is waiting for her outside the door, having heard that she was there. They walk outside and he apologizes for how he acted. He just feels guilty going to medical school while his mom and sister only scrape by. He says if he dropped out of school and worked, they would be doing better. Emily says he can’t drop out, he was born to be a doctor. “Sometimes I wonder where you come from, Emily Blackburn. You’re not quite real,” he says. She leaves feeling like he admitted his feelings for her in his own way. When she gets home, her mother has returned early and caught her. She says if Emily goes to the hospital one more time, she’ll be sent to a Swiss boarding school.
Because it is too late for Worth to find another date and her gown was expensive, Emily’s mother lets her go with him to the masked New Year’s Eve ball at the Waldorf. Annabelle is attending with the senator’s son, who Worth thinks she loves, but she doesn’t look happy. Emily starts to feel upset and overwhelmed again, and before midnight she has to get out of there. She begs Worth to make an excuse for her if her parents come looking for her, and she gets her coat and goes outside. She gets on a bus and takes it down to Wall Street, where tons of people are partying as fireworks light up the sky over the East River and the clock strikes 12. It is now January 1, 1900. At that moment Emily decides she will become a nurse and win over Stephen, no matter what her parents say.
On New Year’s Day Emily tells her parents she wants to be a nurse, but they brush her off again. She goes ice skating with Worth, Annabelle, and the senator’s son in Central Park, and as she and Worth skate together, she looks up and sees Stephen. Seeing her with another guy, Stephen practically runs away.
Emily takes her siblings to her maid’s mother’s house in the Bronx where they eat and play with other children. Her mother demands to know where she went, but Emily doesn’t want to say because her mother would not approve of them mixing with “common” people. Assuming Emily went back to the hospital, her mother says she will be going to a Swiss finishing school before the end of the month.
Emily convinces Annabelle, who is thawing out, to bring a note to the hospital for Stephen because Emily is confined to her house. In her note Emily asks him to come to her house and help convince her parents that she is meant to be a nurse. Annabelle brings back his reply two days later, and he is basically telling her to let it go. Annabelle admits that she needs Emily and doesn’t want her to go to Switzerland, and also admits that she has feelings for Worth too. Emily begs Annabelle to help her go to the hospital one last time to see Stephen before she gets shipped off – literally. Worth picks her up in his new automobile – motor car – a rarity even in NYC. It cost a little over $1200 and he can’t drive it faster than 9 mph. He and Annabelle bring her to the hospital, and just as she goes to tell Stephen what she came to say, someone yells that a building collapsed on 82nd Street. Emily tells Stephen she has a faster way to get to the accident site, and leads him outside to Worth’s car. He drops them off near the site, and Stephen tells her to go home, but she refuses – she feels a pull to help. Construction workers are trapped in the collapsed building.
Stephen and Emily work together, tending to and comforting the hurt men. After a long day, Stephen escorts Emily home and tells her she’s different from other rich people. She says lots of rich people are nice, like her friends, and Stephen asks if Worth is the guy she was with at the park. She tells Stephen that Worth is like a brother to her. Stephen says he cares about her and tried so hard to put her out of his life, but it never worked. He admits he loved her from the first time they met, but she wasn’t part of his plan. She tells him about boarding school in Switzerland, and he says he loves her. They kiss.
He walks her home, and she goes inside to face her parents. She is covered in dirt and blood. Her mother sends her to her room and says they will discuss it the next morning. She is in more trouble the next day when a photo of her tending to a man is printed in the newspaper with her name in the caption. Apparently her mother thinks this is humiliating. Emily tells them the man died, and asks if they even care about his family. That shocks them.
Just then Stephen shows up, and tells her parents how much Emily’s work at the hospital was praised by all the staff. They are very impressed by him. He gives a little speech about being American and having opportunities in the new era, and her parents start to soften, showing that they will eventually consent to Emily doing nursing school when she is old enough. Her father says she can’t volunteer at the hospital if she’s in Switzerland, so boarding school is called off.
Emily walks Stephen out and kisses him in gratitude. She asks Stephen what his other dreams are besides being a doctor, and he says he wants to open a free clinic to help people struggling with money. Stephen says he also dreams of spending his life with her, and Emily says she wants to make that dream come true. The End!
This is very well-written story with a well-crafted heroine. Stephen could have been fleshed out more – he just seemed like a jerk for most of the book. The historical details that made this a turn-of-the-century time period were interesting without being overbearing. Very enjoyable read.
Author: Candice F. Ransom