Observing her pinned-up hair, introverted character, and Virginia Woolf-like cardigan, others deem her a hopeless prospect for marriage. But at the Swiss hotel, she meets a man who claims to understand her. Together, they hike up the mountain and ride a pleasure steamer. Edith receives her second marriage proposal within a few months.
One of the pleasures of reading this novel is its rich eloquence. Rather than being persuaded by Mr. Neville's arguments, Brookner's protagonist is "seduced by the power of his language." Edith too is skilled at verbal evocation. What reader could fail to be struck by the image of a "hieratic profile," and who cannot picture three wealthy women engaging in "a cross fire of brands that spanned the entire continent, Gucci and Hermes, Chanel and Jean Muir?" (This book was published in 1984; today such a brand war would encompass the world.)
The author's understated literary references are another delight. Channeling Oscar Wilde, she gives this aphorism to Mr. Neville: "'Good women always think it is their fault when someone is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.'"
Predictably, he goes on a few minutes later to say "'Let me tell you what you need, Edith.'" Not again, she thinks wearily, but does not reiterate aloud: "I have just told you what I need and I know what that is better than you do."
Anita Brookner brilliantly showcases the parry and thrust of their witty conversations. Descending the mountain, they argue, but civilly. When Neville fails to notice the sharpness of her reply to his impudent presumption, she ups the conversational ante and flees down the mountain, hopefully shouting "'I hate you.'"
But Edith cannot find her way down alone, and is obliged to call out to him. Descending in silence, they walk arm in arm, still at cross purposes. After a time, she remarks, "'I find that smile of yours just the tiniest bit unamiable.'" He responds by broadening that very smile, and assures her that when she gets to know him better, she'll "'realize just how unamiable it really is.'"
Mr. Neville argues vociferously against Edith's "romanticism." He postulates that one cannot live someone else's life, but only one's own. An intelligent woman, she agrees with this, but cannot accept his dictum that "'Whatever they told you about unselfishness being good and wickedness being bad...[is] a lesson for serfs and it leads to resignation." In the mood brought on by the autumn sunshine and the wine she's imbibed, Edith feels the allure of this "dangerous gospel," but not with his view that people feel "'at home with low moral standards'" and scruples put them off.
The entire story takes place in the "closed world of the hotel, with its smells of food and scent, its notice taken of favours granted or withdrawn." It's a place where a little misunderstanding "will go on being mined for hurt feelings, and will be exploited for one reason or another, while the rest of us will use it for conversation from here to eternity or until one of us leaves." Edith's past is slowly revealed in this context. She remembers her recent indiscretion as well as her mother's lifelong professional disappointment and her father's dictum that in times of trouble, "character tells."
In a heartbreaking double entendre, Edith feels on the steamer that "there is no wind, nothing but a steady pressure forward, without any discernible progress being made," and for this reason, she clings to Neville's arm as the boat drifts into "ever thicker mists."
Yet somewhere ahead "behind the veils of mist there was a pale sun which could be seen, in the far distance, to cast a white gleam upon the water." This horizon implies that the weather will change. Edith will reach her next moment of decision, and make the choice that is right for her.
This story was filmed in 1986, starring Anna Massey as Edith, and the wonderful Patricia Hodge as the bulimic woman who lives on cakes and feeds most of her meals to her little dog.