Newly arrived at the Hotel du Lac, a tasteful, well-serviced establishment in the shadow of a thirteenth century castle in Switzerland, Edith Hope, a writer of romantic novels, contemplates the elements of her exile at the hotel. Friends had told her that she should go to the hotel for self-reflection after she had been humiliated and shamed for not showing up at her own wedding.
At the hotel, Edith composes a long letter to her married lover, David Simmonds, revealing her insecurity and loneliness. It is the end of the season; the tourists are gone, the attractions are closed. Only a few assorted guests remain. The first evening, Edith is fascinated by the entrance of the glamorous Iris Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, who acknowledge her presence with only a slight nod. Later in the salon, Edith observes Mme de Bonneuil and another guest, an extraordinarily thin woman with a small dog whom she constantly feeds. She also observes an elegant gentleman with an ironic smile. Despite these observations her fellow guests seem quite unknowable. She is unable to reach out to them socially and feels alienated and detached.
Back in her room, Edith evokes memories of her mother, a discontented and bitter woman, and also recollects her first meeting with David at the party of her friend, Penelope Milne. Edith and David had exchanged glances only, but he returned to her house later, beginning their illicit affair. Edith yearns to call him, but restrains herself.
The next morning, Edith becomes acquainted with Monica, the beautiful thin woman, who is holding her dog, Kiki. Monica says that she is at the Hotel du Lac for health reasons; later, Edith learns that Monica had been sent to Switzerland because she had been unable to produce an heir for her husband. He felt that the place would help Monica to become stronger and more likely to reproduce.
In the afternoon, the elegant gentleman, Philip Neville, suggests a walk, a welcome activity to Edith, who finds little incentive to work on her current novel and is somewhat bored. That night, as she prepares for bed, Edith hears a scream from the corridor and, fearing that Mrs. Pusey has had a heart attack, she hurries to the Puseys’ rooms. She finds Jennifer’s door open, and finds Jennifer in a rather inappropriate position on her bed, flimsily clad. Also in the room is Neville, busying himself with a newspaper. He throws something out the window, which Mrs. Pusey says is a spider.
Edith continues her friendship with Monica, and goes shopping. Edith buys a blue silk dress. She analyzes her new female relationships and questions what kind of behavior is appropriate for women, especially English women. Edith has an outing with Neville. In their long conversation, he declares that he believes one should not make an emotional investment in another person. A person should be able to do whatever he or she pleases: Selfishness is the best path. Edith contends that she prefers a shared relationship, a life of routine and companionship; nevertheless, she is attracted by Neville’s eloquence and sophistication. He tells her that what she needs is a social position and marriage. She becomes annoyed.
A birthday party is held for Mrs. Pusey, who now admits to being a surprising seventy-nine years old. After the frivolity, Edith returns to her room, sad and depressed.
Edith begins to remember the dreadful deed that led to her self-banishment. She was to have married Geoffrey Long, a kind gentleman introduced to her by Penelope. Edith was to have left her pleasant cottage and garden for a...
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new home in Montagu Square. On the way to the registry for her wedding, she had suddenly told the driver not to stop, and she left the wedding guests and her groom amazed and outraged. When she shamefacedly returned home, she bid good-bye to Geoffrey, endured the condemnation of Penelope and her housekeeper, and waited for David. In the light of this embarrassment, plans had been made for her to disappear for an appropriate period.
The morning after these reminiscences, there is a hubbub in the hotel corridor, once more leading to the Puseys’ rooms. In the confusion, Edith understands somehow that the young waiter, Alain, seems to have intruded into Jennifer’s room. She interprets the intrusion to have been nothing more than Alain bringing Jennifer her breakfast, and then reassures herself that all will be forgotten by the evening.
On another day, Edith takes a trip on the lake with Neville; they dock at Ouchy for lunch. He asks what she will do when she returns home. When she hesitates, he proposes that she marry him. He needs a wife, one whom he can trust and who will not hurt or shame him. He offers her an arrangement, a partnership of shared interests, and companionship, if not love. She tells him that she will think about it.
That evening, Edith begins to pack her things; it seems as though everything has been decided. She begins a long letter to David, the first letter that she intends to mail. She has not heard from him, either by phone or by mail, since her arrival at the hotel. She tells him that although he means everything to her, she is getting married and will not see him again.
In the early morning, she rereads the letter and then seals it, intending to get a stamp at the hotel desk. As she quietly makes her way down the hall, she sees Neville emerging from Jennifer’s room, rapidly disappearing. Back in her room, she tears up her letter to David. She asks the porter to book her a flight to London, and she sends home a one-word telegram: “Returning.”