Anna Leath and Sophy Viner discover that they love the same man, George Darrow, an American diplomat who comes from the same genteel class as Anna Leath, but who has had experiences in both Anna's and Sophy's worlds because his position as a man permits him to move freely from one to the other. The donnee of The Reef concerns a set of accidental coincidences that place these three characters unexpectedly in a triangular relationship.
George Darrow is on his way to a meeting with Anna Leath, the woman he loves and hopes to marry. She puts him off with a telegram after he has embarked on his journey. While traveling, he meets Sophy Viner — a younger woman whom he knows only slightly and who is in desperate circumstances having left her employer, Mrs. Murrett, with no clear prospects in sight. He takes pity on her and offers her a holiday in Paris. They have a brief affair which both understand is only for the moment. When he must return to England, they go their separate ways. Time passes, and he reconciles with Anna Leath, journeying to her estate at Givre in order to arrange their marriage and plan their future.
When he arrives at Givre, he discovers that Sophy Viner has been hired to be governess of Anna's daughter, Effie, and subsequently, that she is in the process of becoming engaged to Anna's stepson, Owen. This engagement obviously represents a splendid opportunity for the impoverished Sophy, but it is opposed by Mme. de Chantelle, the mother of Anna Leath's first husband. It is, however, supported by Anna who feels that her step-son should not be limited by the rigid societal restraints that have stymied her in the past. As she tells him, "not missing things matters most."
A number of themes are developed in the ensuing complications, including honesty and fidelity in personal relationships, the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication, and the constraints placed on women by class and sex. All of these themes are subsumed in a passage near the end of the novel when Anna realizes that "the truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure," and she has become aware "of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse."
When Darrow had first arrived at Givre, she had wanted everything to be aboveboard between them. She had asked him questions about the woman he was seen with in Paris, not so much to learn about what happened but for him to know her as she is, "to have the whole of my feeling" as she puts it. Darrow is genuinely happy to be at...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)