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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

Handsome, charming Dr. Nick Fraser enlivens the dull, peaceful atmosphere of the library where Frances and her crippled friend Olivia work. Nick is always in a hurry, full of meaningless endearments and light banter, exuding glamour, adventure, and success. The two young women willingly serve him, though he is quite...

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Handsome, charming Dr. Nick Fraser enlivens the dull, peaceful atmosphere of the library where Frances and her crippled friend Olivia work. Nick is always in a hurry, full of meaningless endearments and light banter, exuding glamour, adventure, and success. The two young women willingly serve him, though he is quite unattainable, as they realize when his wife, Alix, visits the library one day. She, too, has an undeniable aura of power, commanding attention and subservience.

When Alix invites Frances for dinner (at the instigation of Nick, it seems clear), Frances feels that her lonely, isolated, and stifling life is about to undergo an exciting change. She falls in love with the Frasers as a couple; to her, they represent an ideal of pleasure, freedom, selfishness, and imperviousness to the feelings or needs of anyone but themselves. It is an ideal that Frances wants to observe closely and to emulate.

Hardly believing her good luck at being included in the Frasers’ group, Frances quickly becomes uncritically avid for their company; they, in turn, enjoy having her as an audience during their hilarious evenings together, usually in a restaurant, where they attract the amused attention of everyone. Always the observer, Frances studies the Frasers, not always approvingly yet captivated by their absorption in each other, their willingness, even eagerness, to display suggestively their intimacies. Alix is incessantly curious about other people’s lives and exhibits a flattering interest in the facts of Frances’ life. Later, when Frances returns to her spacious, old-fashioned flat, empty except for the silent presence of old Nancy, she writes in her diary and makes notes for a novel.

One evening in October, the three friends are joined by James Anstey, the other doctor at the institute. At first, Frances is somewhat repelled by his distinguished good looks and haughty, unapproachable manner. Yet she senses that they have something in common: shyness, good manners, moral rectitude, and inexperience in certain areas of life with which the Frasers are obviously very familiar.

As the friendship between Frances and James develops, she loses interest in her writing, even though an American magazine has just accepted one of her stories for publication. To some extent, she even loses interest in the Frasers, or at least she becomes less infatuated with them. At the same time, Alix begins to show coolness toward Frances as she resists Alix’s constant, prying questions and accusations of secrecy and duplicity. Alix is annoyed and puzzled by Frances’ good-humored and polite denial that she and James are having an affair, as indeed they are not, though James does seem to be in love with her.

When James moves in with the Frasers to rent their spare room, a turning point in his relationship with Frances takes place, although she does not realize this at first, thinking that nothing has really changed. She proceeds with plans to take a trip with James during Christmas but gradually becomes aware that he is uncomfortable with her. Suspecting that he may no longer love her as he had once seemed to do, Frances is perplexed, distressed, and confused. Once before, Frances experienced a debasing affair which she remembers but of which she never speaks. After one last evening alone with James, when he repulses her without explanation, Frances realizes that she must seek a resolution to what may be a simple misunderstanding. Not yet quite ready to concede defeat, she is determined to be lighthearted and tactful at dinner with Alix, Nick, James, and a striking, bold Italian woman named Maria, with whom Alix enjoys trading uproarious insults, accusations, and intimate information. Maria has often in the past been one of the group. The dinner turns into a hellish scene as Frances observes that James is not, as she had suspected, in love with Alix but with Maria. Characteristically, Frances maintains a calm, smiling exterior while being almost numb with shock and terror.

Finally, walking home alone in the silent streets and through the dark, deserted park, Frances becomes increasingly terrified. Cold, wet, ill, she wonders if she is going mad. Like the preceding scene, this account of the long, frightening walk has the quality of a nightmare; it ends only when she finally reaches home. Under Nancy’s loving, unquestioning care, Frances begins to recover. The following day, she assesses her situation, resumes her writing, and contemplates her future life. Nevertheless, terrified that nothing will change, that she will become old and disabled by her lonely solitude, Frances realizes that she is still hoping that one of the group will call and invite her to their Christmas celebration.

Almost immediately, however, she also faces the truth. The episode with the Frasers and their friends is over. Frances welcomes the thought of the other people who used to throng into her mind, whose stories entertained her mother so much in her last years. Now she thinks of those eccentric, amusing, sad, discarded people. She sees herself among them, and she begins to write.

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