A wealthy and vain couple introduce their sheltered eighteen-year-old daughter into "adult society" with the explicit aim of marrying her off to someone of their choosing, but their daughter, who is not without her own manipulative abilities, has different ideas for her future. At eighteen, Nanda Brookenham is, in the eyes of her parents, awkward and naïve and woefully unprepared for the social maneuverings required at the upper tiers of English society. They decide that it's time to introduce her to the adult world, which the Brookenhams equate with the corrupt circle of friends and hangers-on that revolves around the Brookenhams frequent parties. They arrange for Nanda to make her grand appearance at the next party.
Nanda does, and her beauty and refreshing "awkwardness" (i.e. she's not as cynically tiresome as the rest of them) attract immediate notice. Mr. Longdon, an aging gentleman, recognizes in the young Nanda the face of Nanda's grandmother, with whom Mr. Longdon had once been deeply in love with, but who left him for another man. Mr. Longdon feels an instant paternal affection for Nanda, as if, rather than representing a second attempt to woe her grandmother, she represents the child the two of them could have had. Mrs. Brookenham is aware of none of this. In her single-mindedness, she wants only to pair her daughter with Mitchy, an extremely wealthy but also equally naïve bachelor.
Nanda isn't stupid, though. She knows her mother is pushing her toward Mitchy, but she herself is not as naïve as her parents believe and she doesn't want to marry a man she can't respect, however rich. Mitchy is clearly in love with her, though, but Nanda proves herself a savvy manipulator by convincing the poor Mitchy that what Nanda wants is for him to marry another woman. Mitchy is just naïve enough to comply. Unfortunately for him, his new wife is cruel and unfaithful, and her affairs become common knowledge.
With Mitchy out of the way, the only man in the social circle Nanda might be interested in is a young man named Vanderbank. But to Nanda's mother the man has two major flaws: 1) he is not wealthy, and 2) she wants him for herself. Mrs. Brookenham has been interested in Vanderbank for some time, and keeps trying to pressure him into having an affair. But Vanderbank, though mostly just a flirt, might also harbor real feelings for Nanda, and he does his best to keep Mrs. Brookenham at bay without offending her. Mr. Longdon recognizes this. He also recognizes that Nanda would welcome such a match, and so he offers Vanderbank a hefty dowry if he asks Nanda to marry him. But Vanderbank is a slave to the subtle maneuverings of the social group, and can't seem to bring himself to just come out and state his feelings to Nanda.
In the end, Nanda tires of her parents and their social circle, with their callous manipulations and vain obsessions. She tires of Vanderbank's refusal to commit to his feelings. He never asks her to marry him, even with Mr. Longdon's promised dowry, and so Nanda writes him off. Mr. Longdon is the only person she's met who represents anything noble or virtuous. The novel ends with Nanda deciding to abandon London and its cruel frivolities, and she makes preparations to join Mr. Longdon at his country estate, where she will live as his adopted daughter.
Best part of story, including ending:
Written almost entirely in dialogue, it was fascinating seeing a grand master like James work at deriving a necessary emphasis on subtle dialogue to drive the characters and subtextually glean what little we can about their intentions, but this also left me a little cold toward the whole narrative. All the characters felt kept at a boring distance, since we rarely got a direct glimpse (or really any glimpse at all) into their internal motivations.
Best scene in story:
None really jump out at me as being uniquely exceptional. But if I had to choose one, I suppose I would go with the scene where poor Mitchy learns that his wife, whom he never wanted and only married because his beloved Nanda persuaded him to, has been cheating on him. He's one of the few genuinely nice guys, and this news naturally devastates him because he's so ill-equipped to either forestall it or fix it after the fact.
Opinion about the main character:
Nanda is, for me, just another of the relatively boring, plucky-but-virtuous female protagonists James loves to write. I found her mother, Mrs. Brookenham, with her vanity and selfish manipulations, far more interesting.