Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273
Rosemary Hoyt is just eighteen years old, dewy fresh and full of the promise of beautiful maturity. In spite of her youth, she is already a famous actor, and her film Daddy’s Girl is all the rage. She has traveled to the south of France with her mother for a rest after having become very ill as a result of her diving repeatedly into a Venice canal during the shooting of the motion picture.
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At the beach, Rosemary meets Dick Diver and suddenly realizes that she is in love. After she becomes well acquainted with the Divers, she also comes to like Diver’s wife, Nicole, a strikingly beautiful woman, and Dick and Nicole’s two children. Rosemary’s mother approves of Dick. At one of the Divers’s famous parties, Rosemary tells Dick outright that she loves him, but he makes light of her declaration.
During the party another guest, Mrs. McKisco, sees Nicole behaving hysterically in the bathroom, and on the way home she tries to talk about it with her husband and Tommy Barban, a war hero. Tommy makes her keep silent. Resenting Tommy’s interference, Mr. McKisco provokes a quarrel with him that ends in a duel in which several shots are exchanged but no one is hurt. Rosemary is greatly moved by the incident.
Rosemary travels to Paris with the Divers, where they all attend a round of parties and tours. She makes frequent advances to Dick, but he puts her off, apathetically, until one day a young college man tells of an escapade in which Rosemary was involved. Then Dick begins to desire the young woman. Although their brief love affair is confined to furtive kisses in hallways, Nicole becomes suspicious.
An acquaintance of Dick, Abe North, a brawling composer, offends two black men and involves a third in the dispute. While Dick is in Rosemary’s hotel room, Abe brings one of the black men to the room to ask Dick’s help in resolving the mess. Dick goes with Abe to his own room, leaving the black man in the corridor. The two other black men then kill the waiting man and lay his bleeding body on the bed in Rosemary’s room. When the body is found, Dick carries it into the hall and then takes Rosemary’s bedspread to his bathtub to wash it out. Seeing the bloody bedspread, Nicole becomes hysterical and accuses Dick of many infidelities. Her breakdown is like the one Mrs. McKisco had earlier witnessed.
Some years before, Dick had been doing research in advanced psychology in a clinic in Zurich. There he one day met a pathetic but beautiful patient, young Nicole Warren. At first merely attracted to her professionally, Dick later learned the cause of her long residence in the clinic. Nicole came from a wealthy Chicago family. When she was eleven, her mother died, and after that her father initiated an incestuous relationship with her, which led to Nicole’s breakdown. Her father, too cowardly to kill himself as he had planned, had placed her in the Zurich clinic. For many reasons, Dick became Nicole’s tower of strength; with him she was almost normal. Finally, motivated by pity and love, Dick married her. For a time, he had been able to maintain her in a healthy equilibrium, and the marriage seemed to be a success. This was aided by the fact that Nicole’s family was rich—in fact, Nicole’s older sister was able to buy Dick a partnership in the clinic where he first met Nicole.
For some time after the episode involving Rosemary, Nicole is quite calm but too withdrawn. Then she receives a letter, written by a neurotic woman, accusing Dick of misdeeds with his female patients. The accusations are baseless, but Nicole believes them and has another relapse. She leaves her family at a country fair and becomes hysterical while riding on the Ferris wheel.
At one time, Dick had shown great promise as a writer and as a psychiatrist. His books had become standard reference sources, and many of his colleagues considered him a genius. After Nicole’s hysterical fit on the Ferris wheel, however, he no longer seems able to do real work. One reason for this is Nicole’s increasing wealth, which means that Dick does not have to work. At the age of thirty-eight, still a handsome and engaging man, he begins to drink heavily.
On several occasions, Nicole is embarrassed by her husband’s drunken behavior. She does her best to prevent his drinking and, in so doing, begins to gain strength of her own. For the first time since her long stay at the clinic, she comes to have an independent life, a life apart from Dick’s influence.
Dissatisfied with the life he is leading, Dick decides to go away by himself for a while. He runs into Tommy Barban, still a reckless, strong, professional soldier, who has just had a romantic escape from Russia. While still separated from his wife, Dick receives word that his father has died. He goes back to the United States for the funeral, and the visit is a nostalgic experience. His father had been a gentle clergyman, living a narrow life; in contrast to Dick, he had roots, and he was buried among his ancestors. Dick thinks about how he has lived a rootless, unfettered life for so many years, and he almost determines to remain in the United States.
On the way back to meet his family, Dick stops in Naples. At his hotel, he meets Rosemary again. She is busy making another motion picture, but she manages to find time to see him. No longer as innocent as she once was, she proves an easy sexual conquest. Dick also meets Nicole’s older sister in Naples.
One night, Dick drinks far too much and becomes embroiled in a dispute with a chiseling taxi driver. When he refuses to pay an exorbitant fare, a fight breaks out, and Dick is arrested. The police captain unfairly takes the side of the taxi driver, and, blind with rage, Dick strikes a police officer. In return, he is severely beaten by the Fascist carabinieri. Thinking that his eye has been gouged out, Dick gets word to Nicole’s sister, who brings all her influence to bear on the consul to have her brother-in-law released from police custody.
Back in Zurich, Dick is busy for a time working at the clinic. On a professional visit to Lausanne, he learns to his surprise that Nicole’s father is there, very near death. When the dying man expresses a wish to see his daughter again, Dick sends for Nicole. Strangely enough, the weakened father still cannot face his daughter. In a despairing frenzy, the old man escapes from the hospital and disappears.
Dick continues to go downhill. He consistently drinks too much, and at one point one of his patients, objecting to the smell of liquor on his breath, creates a scene. Finally, Dick is forced to surrender his partnership in the clinic. With no job, he wanders restlessly. He and his wife, he realizes, have less and less in common. At last, after Dick has disgraced his family many times with his drunken scenes, Nicole begins to welcome the attentions of Tommy Barban. She no longer needs Dick, and she looks forward confidently to an independent life with Tommy. After he and Nicole are divorced, Dick moves to the United States. Nicole hears word of him occasionally. He becomes an unsuccessful general practitioner, moving from one small town to another.