Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 919
When Philip and Frannie Howard move into the old Victorian house next door, Florence is immediately taken with her neighbors, especially Frannie. The two women become friends, and Florence spends more and more of her time at the Howards’ house. Florence’s time with the Howards is a series of seemingly tranquil domestic moments: drinking coffee at the maple kitchen table, easy conversations while preparing dinner. The women talk of everything, it seems, except marriage, which is a mystery to Florence. Frannie never shares confidences about Philip or their life together, which makes Florence curious. Frannie tells Florence that she had several women friends before she married, but that changed immediately. She says it is as if there is no room for an intimate woman friend when there is a husband, as if Philip would have to give way if Frannie were to have a truly close woman friend.
The relationship of the three neighbors evolves beyond talk to one of easy silence. Florence often sleeps at the Howards’ and wakes up to tea and buttered toast in the morning. After Christmas, Frannie tells Florence that she and Philip are separating. Frannie moves to a small apartment, and Florence avoids Philip when she sees him in the neighborhood. When Florence visits Frannie, Frannie never talks about her marriage. Florence waits expectantly for Frannie to say something, anything that will help her to understand marriage and what happened between Frannie and Philip. When Florence and her new boyfriend, Bryan, visit Frannie, she admires his ability to ask Frannie directly whether she will go back to Philip.
Florence keeps up her regular visits to Frannie, sometimes spending the night. They have long talks about all the things they will do together. When Florence talks about her relationship with Bryan, she leaves space between her words so that Frannie can speak if she wants to, but Frannie never does. One of the few things she tells Florence is that she and Philip lost a baby. Frannie was prediabetic without knowing it; the baby died during labor. She says no more on the subject.
Looking out her window at Philip’s house, Florence wonders about him and his marriage. As curious as she is about the Howards’ marriage, she does not want to hear anything about Bryan’s former wife—in fact, her mind wanders whenever he talks about his former wife or marriage. One day, Bryan mentions that Frannie’s name came up at lunch. Florence defensively demands to know what was said. Her name was simply mentioned, Bryan replies. This seemingly trivial detail suggests to Florence that Frannie’s life extends far beyond Florence’s grasp and ability to contain her. She is jealous.
Frannie invites Florence to join her for an early-morning picnic at a friend’s house. They take champagne and French bread, and they pick strawberries out of the garden. For both women, this is a sensual, luxurious experience. Frannie’s gaze strays to the house beyond the garden; Florence’s thoughts turn to Bryan, and she wonders what time it is. They soon depart.
Florence and Bryan have fallen in love. One evening they are having an especially playful time together, joking and laughing with each other. Just as Florence imagines that they will begin to make love, Bryan announces that he has seen Frannie with a woman who, he believes, is her new lover. This breaks the spell they have enjoyed during the evening and preempts their lovemaking. While Bryan falls asleep, Florence jealously imagines Frannie with this woman.
The next morning, Florence stops by Frannie’s apartment. Frannie’s things are in the street. As Florence stands looking at them, Frannie and her lover, Helen, drive up. Frannie is moving into Helen’s house. The introductions are awkward. Florence and Helen survey each other. When Florence offers to help, Helen tells her they are nearly finished. There is little more to say. Florence turns and runs down the street to her car.
Back at her own home, Florence is waiting for Bryan to come and take her swimming. Outside, Philip is cutting the grass and trimming his hedges. She tries to sneak into the house before Philip notices her, but he calls to her. After some small talk, Philip invites Florence to see the work he has done since her last visit.
The house feels spacious and there have been many changes. Florence tells Philip that she misses the things that are now gone, that she loved the days and evenings when the three of them sat around, sipping brandy and talking. It was more than just friendship, she says; it was like being a member of their family. Philip responds teasingly that those were lovely times, with him in love with Frannie and Frannie in love with Helen. He confesses that they used Florence to take the focus off the issue of their marriage and Frannie’s attraction to Helen. This gives her painful insight into Philip and Frannie’s marriage and, in some measure, into all marriages.
As Bryan drives up to her house and gets out of his car, Florence learns from Philip some of the secrets of marriage: that she was the only one of the threesome who was happy, that all the secrets of marriage are not necessarily disclosed, and that it is worth finding out for oneself. Just as Bryan reaches to press the doorbell at Florence’s, she calls out to him, letting him know where she is.
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