Susan and Matthew Rawlings are an intelligent, practical, and conventional married couple living in Richmond, a suburb of London. Their twelve-year marriage has produced four children and innumerable sensible decisions. The Rawlingses have a slightly superior attitude toward other couples who allow clichéd problems to disrupt their harmony. When Matthew, a subeditor at a large London newspaper, finally commits adultery, Susan understands and forgives.
Susan, an advertising artist before her marriage, looks forward to the moment when her youngest children, twins, begin school so that she will have some time to herself during the day. Her seemingly perfect family life, however, becomes increasingly insufficient for her, but she is resolved to avoid the typical responses to such inadequacy. She may find some meaning in work but will wait until the children, who need an attentive mother, are older.
Susan battles an increasing depression with her intelligence, trying to find comfort in the always sensible approach she and Matthew take to everything, telling herself she regrets nothing about her life. After the twins finally begin school, Susan finds herself afraid of her new freedom and hides from her depression in cooking, sewing, and other busywork. She is afraid to be alone in her garden, where her loneliness is most likely to manifest itself. Increasingly, she considers her obligations as wife and mother to be pressures that are driving her crazy. Confused by the new Susan whom she seems to have become, she is unable to communicate her fears to Matthew.
Craving privacy so that she can be her true self, Susan retreats to a spare room at the top of her house, but soon her children and Mrs. Parkes, her housekeeper, convert it into yet another family room. After her fears take seemingly human form as a devilish young man grinning wickedly at her from her garden, she takes a solitary walking tour in Wales, but her demon follows her.
After she convinces Matthew to hire an au pair to look after the children when they return home from school each day, Susan begins spending her days in London under the name Mrs. Jones, sitting peacefully in a shabby room in Fred’s Hotel, doing nothing but luxuriating in perfect solitude. Room nineteen gives her the identity that her home life denies. Suspicious of her actions, Matthew hires a detective to follow her. Because he wants it to be so, she confesses to having an affair. Matthew admits his own relationship with a friend of theirs and wants the two couples to get together. Confused over how to substantiate her imaginary lover, empty at seeing how easily Sophie Traub, the au pair, fulfills the role of mother, depressed at losing the privacy of Fred’s Hotel, Susan goes to room nineteen and turns on the gas.
The story begins with a description of the history of Susan and Matthew Rawlings’s marriage, which has been a very practical union. They married in their late twenties after having known each other for some time and after having experienced other relationships. They, and their friends, consider them to be “well matched.”
Before their children came, Susan worked in an advertising firm while Matthew was a sub-editor for a London newspaper. They began their family in a house in Richmond, a suburb of London, and they eventually had four children. Their life together was happy but rather flat. They privately began to wonder about the central point of all of the work they did—Matthew outside the home and Susan inside. They did, however, love each other and were determined to have a successful marriage. As a result then, they convinced themselves that “things were under control.”
One night Matthew comes home late and admits that he has been with another woman. Both he and Susan determine that the event was not important and would not damage their relationship. Yet, they both become irritable. Susan begins to wonder about her importance to Matthew and thinks about the ten years of her...
(The entire section is 1,408 words.)