Everything in Hotel du Lac is seen through the eyes of Edith Hope, a diffident and unassuming writer of popular romantic fiction who is staying in a hotel of former splendor beside Lake Geneva, apparently against her will. She has been temporarily banished from London in some kind of disgrace. The hotel, the few guests who are lingering on to the end of the season, and the events which have led to Edith’s reluctant vacation are described in an elegantly written third-person account of her thoughts, reminiscences, and observations and through the long and loving letters she writes to David Simmonds, a married man with a family, with whom she has been having a clandestine affair.
The letters are full of wryly amused accounts of her fellow guests and their behavior, but she makes only cursory references to her encounters with Philip Neville, a cool and immaculate businessman who has recently turned up at the hotel. Not until the end of the novel is it revealed that none of the letters had been posted.
The only other guests are an elderly aristocrat, Madame de Bonneuil; the beautiful but painfully thin Monica, “Lady X,” with her little dog; and the rich, glamorous, elderly widow Iris Pusey and her voluptuous daughter, Jennifer Pusey. Through her observations of these women, Edith tries to come to grips with her own emotional dilemma, which is revealed in gradual stages.
Although Edith loved David and was never happier than when ministering to his insatiable lust for food, she had been depressed by the infrequency of his visits. After meeting Geoffrey Long, a prosperous but very boring businessman, at a party given by her matchmaking neighbor, Penelope Milne, she had drifted into a marriage engagement with him, lured by the security and domesticity which he could offer and David clearly could not.
In one of the engaging sad-and-comic passages which now and then break through the restrained surface of the book, Edith recalls the scandal she caused on her wedding day, when she changed her mind at the last minute and drove right past the waiting groom and guests at the registry office. Her friends had been deeply shocked, and Penelope had packed her off to Switzerland to be out of the way until things cooled down at home.
A strange and disturbing relationship develops between Edith and Mr. Neville. He is able to plumb the depths of her fragile and uncertain soul with calculated cruelty. She is dumbfounded when he asks her to marry him.
“I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind,” he tells her. “A partnership based on esteem. If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, as long as you arrange it in a civilized manner,” and he claims the same right for himself. For him, the marriage will provide an efficient hostess and an intelligent companion who will not humiliate him or make demands on him. For her, he tells her candidly, it represents the final chance of a secure and comfortable future. The alternative, he warns, is a gradual descent into loneliness, boredom, and triviality.
Edith, remembering the unsatisfactory nature of her affair with David, recognizes the harsh logic of his argument. After a night of introspection, she writes a farewell letter to David telling him she is going to marry Mr. Neville. This, however, like the rest of the letters, is never posted.
Throughout the novel, Edith has been puzzled by Jennifer, whose sexually provocative presence is at odds with her apparent joy in devoting her whole life to her mother. In the penultimate page of the book the mystery is solved. Mr. Neville, she realizes, has been spending all of his nights with Jennifer. Suddenly aware that the marriage contract that has been proposed would provide the husband with license but the wife with humiliation, she tears up the letter to David and drafts a telegram to Penelope.
The final sentence of the novel, in which she changes the wording of the telegram from “coming home” to “returning,” is a poignant indication...
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