A widow and her former lover reunite for an attempt to renew what they once had, but the chance encounter with a governess complicates this arrangement and threatens to unravel everything. George Darrow is content and relatively comfortable as an American diplomat working through the embassy in London. Then he receives word from a woman in his past whose husband has just died. The woman, Anna Leath, was once the woman George hoped to marry, but she chose to accept the proposal of this other (now dead) man. Anna makes it clear to George that she would like to resume their relationship where it left off all those years ago. George is reluctant, but he retains enough residual feelings to want to give it a shot. So he packs up and prepares to come live with her in the French countryside.
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On the way, though, he meets an attractive young woman named Sophy Viner. She doesn't possess much money or refinement, but she does have a refreshing vitality and excitement about life that George finds enchanting. The two continue traveling on to Paris and George spends several days simply enjoying life in a way he hasn't in quite some time. But they soon must part. Sophy continues on to parts unknown, and George joins Anna at her grand chateau.
Despite the long years apart, the reasons for their split, and the presence of Anna's two children – and not to mention the recent time spent with Sophy – George finds himself falling in love with Anna all over again. He begins making plans to marry her and whisk here away with him on his next diplomatic assignment. Anna, meanwhile, feels much the same and likes having a new paternal figure in her daughter Effie and stepson Owen's lives.
It turns out George is not the only one planning marriage. Owen has found a woman he wants to propose to, but the match is rejected by the family matriarch, Owen's dowager grandmother the Marquise de Chantelle. No marriage can take place without her approval, so Anna asks George to plead on Owen's behalf. But when George meets the prospective bride, he's shocked to see that it's Sophy Viner, the woman he spent those enchanting whirlwind days in Paris with. And to complicate matters even further, Owen only met Sophy when she was hired by Anna to be governess to her daughter Effie. Sophy begs George not to say anything about their past and thereby endanger both her job and her relationship with Owen.
But George, fearing that it will come out eventually and will only make things look worse, lets it slip to Anna that he already knew Sophy. But he makes it seem like a passing acquaintanceship, which, aside from the emotions involved, it essentially was. Anna is initially skeptical, but after George convinces her, she sets aside her doubts. And when the Marquise also sets aside her own doubts about the lower class Sophy, Owen proceeds with his marriage plans. George, relieved, continues on with his own plans as well.
But then Sophy makes her own announcement. She cancels the engagement with Owen and reveals to George that she is in love with him, and has been since their short time together in Normandy and Paris. Anna is outraged. Owen is angry and heartbroken. George attempts to convince Anna that the fling was just that: a fling – momentary and inconsequential. The novel ends with nobody getting precisely what they want. Owen flees to Spain. Sophy leaves as well and travels to India as governess to another family. Anna, meanwhile, is torn. She feels betrayed but also knows that she can't simply stop loving George, and despite her reservations and the hurt it's implied she will always feel, her and George's wedding, it's presumed, goes ahead as planned.
Best part of story, including ending:
Not as deep or as sweeping as THE HOUSE OF MIRTH or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, this is still an engaging and fascinating look at what Edith Wharton does so well: the romantic entanglements of the upper classes.
Best scene in story:
The scene where George first runs into Sophy again, and realizes she is back in his life in the most complicating way imaginable, is deftly done.
Opinion about the main character:
In his apparent juggling of two women, George could have very easily come off as a cad, but he's so sympathetic that you never forget that 1) Anna spurned him first, years ago, and that before he joined her in France he had zero idea if they COULD actually rekindle their relationship; and 2) he does find something with Sophy that is real and worthy and goes beyond just an old man hanging with an attractive young girl.