Aunt Yvonne and Aunt Noelene are in the kitchen, talking about what Margaret and Isobel will wear to their mother’s funeral. The girls need new clothes and shoes, and Noelene is happy to buy them, but she thinks purchasing them something black is a waste of money. Aunt Yvonne is scandalized by the thought of the girls wearing something other than black to the funeral, but she is not the one paying for the new clothes.
Isobel’s mother has died, and before readers are able to see the emotions surrounding the event, they are plunged into the “business” of grief—the arrangements that must be made and the social niceties which must be observed in the wake of loss.
Isobel is packing her books up into a box which will be stored at Aunt Noelene’s—she is sad to be parting with them. As Isobel thinks about her mother’s death, she cannot call up “any decent feeling from her evil heart”—she is only full of joy at the thought of freedom and new shoes. Isobel goes into the bedroom and asks Margaret, who is sitting on the bed “dazed and weeping,” if she can take the Shakespeare. Isobel wishes she could tell her sister to cheer up, and notes that somebody should be giving Isobel herself the opposite advice. Isobel is sorrowful at not being able to grieve her mother’s death—she wonders if at the funeral, she will feel something, and become “a member of the human race.”
The first glimpse of Isobel after her mother’s death reveals that Isobel is positively gleeful at her mother’s passing. Isobel is free at last—free from abuse, free from the house that served as a cage of poverty and trauma, free from having to hide her love of books and her desire for escape into another world. Despite Isobel’s relief and joy, she knows that what she is feeling is technically “wrong,” and it makes her feel separate from the entire “human race.”
At the funeral, though, things are no better. As the coffin is lowered into the ground, Isobel urges herself to “feel something,” but only feels joy “flaring like a great red flower” within her. On the way back to the house after the service, Isobel is more depressed by the fact that ritual has failed her than by the fact of her mother’s death.
It’s hard to blame Isobel for feeling relief at her mother’s death, but Isobel, the victim of intense trauma and abuse, is still finding ways to blame herself for feeling nothing.
Back at the house, Aunt Yvonne and Aunt Noelene discuss with Margaret and Isobel what the girls are going to do. Isobel has a job interview lined up for the following day—her prospective employers need someone to translate German, and because Isobel received honors in the subject, she believes they will take her on even without shorthand and typing skills. When the aunts ask Isobel where she plans to live, she tells them she can board somewhere. Aunt Yvonne offers to help Isobel secure a room before she returns to the country with Margaret.
Isobel has a plan for her future already—her organization and determination imply that she has been waiting for the day in which she can finally be free and strike out on her own without fear of being pulled back into the dark world of her childhood.
Aunt Yvonne, Margaret, and Isobel take a taxi ride to the boarding house where Isobel will be staying. Aunt Yvonne has paid Isobel’s board for the week, and as the two say an awkward goodbye, Yvonne tells Isobel that Noelene will soon be in touch about the money from the furniture. Margaret bids Isobel goodbye, and Isobel says goodbye back—it is not a last word, she thinks, but a first word. She picks up her suitcase, goes to the door, and rings the bell.
Isobel’s aunts are helpful and generous in getting her out of her hometown and settled in the city. Margaret, who is more devastated by the loss, leans on her family, while Isobel, unburdened by grief, is free at last to begin her journey towards independence and self-discovery.
A tall elderly woman with ginger hair opens the door—Mrs. Bowers, the landlady. She tells Isobel she’s been expecting her and invites her in. She offers Isobel a cup of tea and bids her to follow her into the kitchen. In the kitchen, an old woman named Mrs. Prendergast is slicing beans. Mrs. Bowers introduces Isobel to Mrs. Prendergast as a “poor little thing” who has just lost her mother—Isobel is still in her funeral clothes, but then again, as they are the only nice clothes she owns, she hasn’t “much choice.” Isobel drinks tea and eats cake while the two women chat, and when she is finished, Mrs. Bowers tells her that dinner is at six, residents must change their linens on Sundays, and that her daughter, Madge, will show her around.
The boarding house, like Isobel’s childhood home, is dominated by women. Though the others take pity on Isobel for her unfortunate circumstances, they do not know how happy Isobel is to be out of her home and out from other her mother’s thumb, safe in a new place where abuse and trauma cannot touch her.
Mrs. Prendergast asks if Madge is “still in with those people,” and Mrs. Bowers answers only that it “doesn’t do any harm.” As Isobel carries her case upstairs, she wonders who “those people” are. Isobel decides that Madge must be a flighty “mod.” Isobel enters her room, which is commonplace and small; nonetheless, she loves every single thing in it because it is her own. She unpacks her books and sets them on a shelf, grateful for the chance to choose for herself the way her room will be laid out.
Isobel is completely overcome with joy—she is free at last, and everything around her is all her own. She does not have to hide anymore—she can display her books, rearrange her things, and decide who she wants to be and what kind of place she wants to make for herself in this home and in the world.
Isobel catches sight of her face in the mirror, and notes that she looks so happy that the strong resemblance to her mother doesn’t even matter. She considers changing her name to Maeve, believing it to be a poised and confident name. The dinner bell rings, and Isobel hurries downstairs.
Isobel is so happy to be free that the fact that she carries her mother around with her on her own face doesn’t even matter to her. She feels so detached from her mother now that she even considers changing the name her parents gave her to something else.
Isobel watches as three men and two women take their seats around the dinner table. A beautiful older woman asks Isobel if she is the new boarder, and what her name is. She considers introducing herself as Maeve, but decides against it. Isobel sits between the older woman and Madge, who does not look at all flighty. An elderly gentleman sits at the end of the table—the older woman introduces herself as Betty and the man as Mr. Watkin, and then points out the two younger men as Tim and Norman. Tim seems cheerful, while Norman seems serious.
Isobel meets the people who will be her neighbors and, she hopes, her friends with a new kind of self-confidence. She can be anyone she wants to be here—she does not have to be the frightened little girl she once was. The opportunity to reinvent herself, re-discover herself, and find a place where she belongs is all Isobel has ever wanted.
As dinner goes on, Isobel attempts to jump into the conversation, but she finds that her remarks are slightly off-putting and seem to silence the other boarders. After dinner, Betty offers to show Isobel around so that Madge can “get away,” and Madge nods gratefully. Betty shows Isobel the ropes, giving her tips on how to avoid a busy bathroom in the mornings and advising her that ironing will cost her and sitting up in her room at night with the lights on will run up the electricity bill and anger Mrs. Bowers. Betty then heads downstairs to play cards with Mr. Watkin.
Despite her hopes that she will be able to reinvent herself as charming and likable, Isobel realizes for the first time that due to the isolation and trauma of her upbringing, she has trouble connecting with other people. She longed to be a “member of the human race” when her mother died, and her feelings of separation from other people will follow her throughout this new chapter of her life.
Isobel stays upstairs and continues unpacking, slightly sad that she can’t stay up reading in her room all night. When she’s finished, she wonders if she should bring her book down to the common room, but decides it would be bad manners on the first night; in the name of “right behavior,” Isobel heads down to watch the card game. After just a little while, though, Isobel is exhausted, and goes back upstairs to bed.
Isobel is so used to there being strict rules and regulations on her behavior that she denies herself her deepest pleasure—reading—in favor of appearing likable to her fellow boarders.
At 8:30 A.M. the next morning, Isobel—pretending in her head, for purposes of self-confidence, that she is Maeve Callaghan—strides into the office of Lingard Brothers Importers, a glassworks company, to start work. A young woman named Olive leads her back to the office of Mr. Walter, the boss, who explains that her duties will be first and foremost to translate the German mail. He instructs her not to worry about her other duties until the backlog is cleared, except for handling petty cash. After giving her instructions on how to manage the cash box, Isobel attempts to make a joke, asking if at the end of the week she can take home whatever’s left over, but the moment falls flat, and Mr. Walter does not understand her lighthearted quip.
As Isobel enters her new work atmosphere, she does so with confidence; but once again she finds that her interpersonal skills are somewhat lacking, or at least just a little bit “off” from the accepted norm. Nonetheless, Isobel is grateful to have a new place to find herself—to throw herself into work and further her connection to other people.
Olive returns to take Isobel from Mr. Walter’s office and bring her back to the small room at the front, where two other girls are uncovering their typewriters and sitting down to work. Olive introduces them as Rita and Nell—Rita has a “gypsy smile” while Nell has an “agreeable” face. Olive shows Isobel to her typewriter, but Isobel says she can’t type. Olive tells her to do her best and offers to put some paper in it for her.
Isobel’s new coworkers are friendly and welcoming and show her grace, help, and acceptance despite the fact that they don’t know her at all.
As Isobel gets to work, she enjoys losing herself in the “stories” of the letters she is translating, picturing all the details as if she is reading one of her books. Soon, though, it is time to face the typewriter. Isobel asks Rita for help, and Rita briefly shows her how to use the machine. Isobel is not proficient with the typewriter, but finds that working on it is “endurable but disappointing.” Isobel loses herself in focus, and is jarred when a voice behind her suddenly asks if she can type any faster. It is Mr. Richard, another of the bosses at the company. He stands behind her, watching as she works. Isobel, frustrated, tells herself that she is not at the office—she is in Czechoslovakia, within the pages of the letter.
As always, Isobel is eager to lose herself in a story. She escapes the stresses of her job through the best aspect of it—being able to read other people’s words and understand their lives just a little bit through what they share. Isobel is, however, introduced to the odd behaviors of an overbearing boss—his hovering over her is no doubt reminiscent of the feeling of claustrophobia her mother inspired in her, and just as Isobel lost herself in books to escape that trauma, she loses herself in her work to escape this new uncomfortable development.
Mr. Richard eventually walks away, but soon after, Isobel finds herself up against some German words she does not know, and realizes she does not have a German dictionary with her. Isobel is afraid of how badly she has failed at her first day. Olive suggests Isobel go out and buy a dictionary at her lunch break—Isobel has a little money from Aunt Noelene.
Isobel’s first day at work is not an easy one, but with the support of her coworkers—and the unseen support from her Aunt Noelene—she is determined to make it through.
At lunch, Isobel visits a bookshop and picks up a German dictionary. She brings it to the register to purchase it, but the shop proprietor tells her she can have it for free. This makes the book precious to Isobel, and she carries it back to work as if it was a talisman. After lunch, work is easier—her typing improves slightly, and the German dictionary helps greatly. At the end of the day, she places it in the drawer and gives it a pat before heading home. That night, Isobel falls asleep right after dinner. The next day at work is “peaceful,” and the work goes fast. That night, at dinner, Betty is not present, and after dinner Madge disappears and only Mr. Watkin remains downstairs. Isobel finally gets the chance to read for pleasure in the common room, and she is delighted.
The rest of Isobel’s day passes much more smoothly than the first half of it did—she settles into a rhythm at work, she is buoyed by the shopkeeper’s generosity, and now, at nights at the boarding house, she at last feels comfortable enough to lose herself in a book at the end of the day. Isobel is feeling a little bit more like she belongs, both at work and in her brand-new home.
Isobel visits Aunt Noelene, and the two discuss Isobel’s finances. Aunt Noelene offers to pay for Isobel to take classes in typing and shorthand—she is afraid that without these skills, Isobel will lose her job, and if this job folds, she won’t be able to get another. Isobel tells Noelene that she doesn’t want to be a burden, but Noelene asks Isobel who else is supposed to look after her. Noelene tells Isobel to come visit the first Sunday of every month and she will give her four pounds for the week until Isobel earns a pay raise. Isobel wants to know if she will have to ask Mr. Walter personally for a raise; Noelene tells Isobel that she will get “nothing out of this world unless [she] fight[s] for it.”
Isobel has been feeling confident and capable, but her visit to Aunt Noelene reminds her that she still has a long way to go. The world is run by money, Aunt Noelene reminds her, and Isobel must fight tooth and nail for the things she deserves in the world. Isobel, struggling to overcome deep personal trauma and a crisis of self-confidence, will need help in this department. Noelene’s staunch words remind Isobel that there is a lot more to self-discovery than she realized.
Noelene fears that Isobel has started off on the wrong foot at her company and is not being compensated fairly for her skills in German. Noelene urges Isobel to find out what the other girls at the firm are making. Noelene fixes herself a drink and then says determinedly that she doesn’t think Isobel will make it—she’s not a “fighter.” She urges Isobel to be a teacher—Isobel replies that she hates school. Noelene tells Isobel that she can stay at the company until the end of the year, but should start looking for other work.
Noelene’s words are both encouraging and discouraging. She is supportive of Isobel and wants the best for her niece, but in trying to look out for her, is inadvertently invalidating all the hard work Isobel has done to get herself a job and strike out on her own.
Aunt Noelene takes a phone call, and Isobel sits alone in the kitchen, marveling at how her aunt has “tamed money” and made it into a “kind of playmate.” Isobel wishes she could give Noelene something in return, though she knows she can’t. After lunch, Isobel returns to the boarding house with a knew belt, handbag, sweater, and coat from Aunt Noelene’s stash of clothes. In spite of the new clothes, Isobel feels that the visit was “depressing,” as it focused mostly on the “frightening living nature of money.”
Isobel is worried by a lot of what transpired during her visit with Noelene, but she is nonetheless determined to continue on her journey towards independence and self-discovery. Just as she was as a child, Isobel is further bolstered by Noelene’s gifts of clothes.
Isobel returns to work and is off put by how frequently Mr. Richard comes to stand behind her and watch her work. The store man, Frank, tells Isobel she should say something polite but dismissive to Richard in order to get him to move along. Frank tells Isobel that Richard has hardly any work of his own and is largely incompetent. Despite Frank’s urgings, Isobel decides to handle Mr. Richard with inner calm alone, choosing to ignore him when he stands behind her.
Isobel is practicing the skills she learned during her years of battle with her mother to survive at work. Rather than rising to Mr. Richard’s provocations or giving him any cause to escalate things, she is focusing on maintaining a new kind of “state of grace” in the workplace.
At the boarding house, Isobel is more at home in the kitchen most nights than the drawing room, and enjoys listening to Mrs. Bowers and Mrs. Prendergast discuss death and sex and reminisce about their own lives. Isobel thinks of the two women as the Fates, and listens with interest to their every word as they dissect their dreams and gripe about their friends, knowing that within her mind there is a “collector intent at information at all costs.”
Isobel is forging new connections in her personal life with two older women she sees as Fates—divine beings with the answers she needs in order to solve her problems. The maternal figures bolster Isobel and help her inch closer to self-discovery through the stories and wisdom they share.
Isobel takes a typing class but finds it miserable. She is better in shorthand and dictation, but typing frustrates her endlessly. One afternoon, coming back from typing class, Mrs. Bowers calls her into the kitchen for some sweets. Isobel joins her, and Mrs. Bowers tells her all about her daughter Madge’s fascination with a “strange religion.” Mrs. Bowers has told Madge that she cannot practice the religion in the boarding house, though she supposes that it doesn’t do any harm for Madge to practice it elsewhere. She also reveals that Betty had been “the guilty party” in a scandalous divorce, while Mr. Watkins spent his life recording the fortunes of dynasties of race horses. As Mrs. Bowers tells Isobel about all the other boarders, Isobel mentally “trie[s] on each life” to see if it suits her.
Isobel’s search for self-discovery and a sense of the place where she belongs deepens as she listens to Mrs. Bowers’ stories about other people’s lives. Isobel is fascinated by how each person is so unique and has made a life for themselves despite setbacks and unfortunate circumstances. Isobel wonders what the story of her life will look like, and she tries to imagine herself as different versions of all the people around her.
Going to the college for her typing classes has brought Isobel the “pleasure of eating out,” and she frequents a nearby café where she eats fish and chips and reads quietly—on these outings, she feels at home for the first time. One Saturday, Isobel visits a new café, a coffee shop, and reads for a while before returning to the boarding house to sit with the Fates. Isobel is grateful for her easy, pleasant Saturdays.
Isobel is now striking out on her own even further than the bounds of the boarding house, exploring the city and contemplating all that it is has to offer her as she searches for her place in the world.
Rita shows up to the office on Monday and announces that she is engaged. At lunchtime, Isobel joins Rita and the other girls in the showroom, where the staff eats their sandwiches at a corner table, and Rita waltzes around, dizzy with glee. Rita wonders who amongst the girls will be next to get married—Isobel jokes that it will be she and Mr. Richard. Rita tells the others that she and her husband want to move to Melbourne together. Isobel hears this news “with dismay,” knowing that Aunt Noelene will expect her to seize the moment of Rita’s departure and wrangle more pay from her bosses. Isobel doesn’t feel she has enough courage, though, and laments that life works this way: “no sooner had you built yourself your little raft and felt secure than it came to pieces under you and you were swimming again.”
Isobel has been doing well the last several weeks, but the news of Rita’s marriage—and thus the news that a new spot will be opening up in the company, and that Isobel will need to seize the opportunity to advance or be left behind—fills her with dread. She is working so hard just to get herself to a place of stability and self-acceptance, and as she realizes that the struggle to be one’s best self is a lifelong journey, she is daunted by all she has ahead of her.
After the others go back to work, Olive holds Isobel back. She advises her not to be so friendly with Frank, who is a communist, and not to make any jokes about Richard;. she could have Rita’s job when she leaves and get a “big promotion” if only she keeps her head down and stays out of trouble. Later, Isobel tells Frank what Olive told her, and the two commiserate over how difficult the work environment is. Isobel confesses that she always thought she would just do her work and take her money and not have to worry about anything else. Frank asks Isobel what she wants out of life, and asks her if she ever thinks of being a writer—she has a certain “way of putting things,” he notes. Isobel asks Frank to drop the subject. When he asks her again what she wants, she tells him that all she desires is to “be one of the crowd.”
Isobel’s simple desires are not in harmony with how complicated and stressful the world can be. All she wants is to do her work, make money, feel at home in the world, and go quietly throughout her life—but life presents obstacles which must be overcome, interpersonal dramas large and small which must be navigated, and, in Isobel’s case, callings to some larger purpose or bigger dream which, despite one’s best efforts, cannot always be ignored.
Two days later, Isobel’s “crowd” appears. She is sitting in a coffee shop in town when a group of six young people come in and push a bunch of tables together. Isobel is annoyed that they are making so much noise, but when they start talking about schoolwork and poetry, Isobel can’t help but pay attention to their conversation and wish she could be a part of them. She believes they are “living as she long[s] to,” and is sure none of them has any idea just how lucky they are.
All Isobel wants is a group of friends that meet her ideals of what it will mean to be part of a crowd, or a group. When Isobel notices some high-minded university students, she is so filled with envy and longing that she knows she must somehow insert herself into their social circle.
Isobel thinks she recognizes one of the girls from somewhere, and wishes she could remember her name so that she could go up to her and insert herself into the group. She thinks that the girl looks bored, and Isobel wishes she could take her place. Suddenly, Isobel remembers the girl’s name—it is Vinnie Winters, and Isobel knows her from school. Isobel at last approaches the table and introduces herself to Vinnie—she asks if Vinnie remembers either her or Margaret, but Vinnie doesn’t seem to.
Isobel, by chance, does indeed have a “way in” with these alluring new people, though the connection does not earn her quite as warm a welcome as she’d hoped it would. Nonetheless, Isobel is determined to join this group, and to find the cool literary friends she’s always dreamed of having.
The boy opposite Vinnie asks Isobel to come and join them, and offers to bring her things over to their table for her. Once Isobel sits down, one of the boys—Kenneth—asks Isobel if she were a part of speech, which part she would be. He is a very, he says; their friend Janet is a conjunction; Vinnie is an adjective, and Trevor is a noun. Isobel tells them that she is a preposition—she likes “only small common objects.” One of the other girls smiles at her joke, and Isobel—whose jokes always fall flat—is astounded. Isobel banters with her clever new friends and feels at home.
These new friends play funny games and laugh at Isobel’s jokes—at last, she feels that she is not on the fringes or the outside of a group, but is a member of the human race and a part of the crowd, just like she always wanted to be. It does not occur to Isobel that there might be demands to this new friendship that she cannot yet foresee, just as she was blind to the demands of work and living as a financially independent person in the world.
One of the young men asks what part of speech his friends think he is—his name is Nick, and Kenneth tells him that he is an adverb. He tells Nick jokingly that someone named Diana, who is not present, is a “past participle.” As the game goes on, and the students assign parts of speech to teachers and people they know, such as a professor whom they refer to as Joseph, they soon grow bored. As silence falls upon the group, Isobel departs, bidding them all goodbye.
Isobel has had a taste of belonging and self-discovery, joking and making intellectual banter with these strange and exciting new friends. She is electrified by their world despite the fact that it seems that there are some underlying tensions within it.
Isobel returns to the boarding house, feeling as if she has finally found people who speak “her own language.” When Mrs. Bowers greets her and asks where she’s been, Isobel tells her she was out with a girlfriend—Isobel the “born liar” is back. Isobel spins lies about the imaginary “friend” she was out with while Mrs. Bowers serves her tea and cake. Isobel feels guilty—there is no place for lying in the beautiful kitchen—but she cannot stop telling lies about her friend “Emma.”
Isobel is so protective of her new friends, and the new sense of belonging that she has found, that her instinct is to hide it from Mrs. Bowers. This comes from years and years of hiding everything good in her life from her mother—because Isobel sees Mrs. Bowers as a kind of maternal figure, she falls into the destructive patterns of her youth almost against her will.
Mrs. Prendergast remarks that she had a cousin named Emma who was “put a way for a while” after going “funny” after the birth of her third child. Mrs. Prendergast then tells the story of a woman who lived across from her in her old town. When the woman’s baby was six weeks old, she and her husband were getting ready to go out one evening; he called for her, and she told him that she would be out in a minute—she was just “popping the baby in the oven.” The husband ran to the kitchen to find their infant “greased all over and trussed up in the baking dish”—he got there just in time. Isobel is seized with “anguish” for the baby in the story.
As Isobel listens to the story of a woman whose postpartum state led her to begin the early stages of cooking her baby in the oven, Isobel is overcome with horror, seeing the dark impulses which drove her mother to abuse her for years and years reflected in the tale, and realizing that while someone came to save the baby in the baking dish, nobody ever came to save Isobel.
All week, Isobel thinks of the group she met in the café. She tries to find out the name of the poet they were discussing, and wonders who the teacher they were discussing, someone named Joseph, might be. On Saturday morning, Isobel arrives at the café early, hoping that the group will come by again. Sure enough, Trevor and Nick show up, and invite Isobel to their table. Janet and Kenneth come in next, arguing about an essay topic. Isobel struggles to keep up with their conversation. To ingratiate herself to her new friends, Isobel tells them about Mrs. Bowers and Mrs. Prendergast, but presents the women as ridiculous and strange, feeling a pit in her stomach as she does.
Isobel is completely obsessed by her new friends because of what they represent as a whole: a life devoted to literature and intellect, bolstered by solid friendships, and marked by a sense of belonging. Isobel finds herself doing whatever she can to ingratiate herself to these people so that they’ll let her become one of them—even throwing her dear friends at the boarding house under the bus to earn some laughs from the students.
When Janet asks Kenneth whether he’s bringing Vinnie to an upcoming ball, Kenneth recites a dark poem of his own composition in response. Isobel, confused and startled, tries not to laugh. Kenneth then begins telling a story about writers whose names Isobel doesn’t know and can’t keep track of. As he and Janet banter back and forth, Isobel resents the affection they have for one another.
Isobel realizes that perhaps there are some strange undercurrents to this group, but she chooses to ignore them. She is jealous of what the students have with one another, and wants it for herself.
Trevor walks Isobel nearly to the boarding house, and asks her why she doesn’t attend university. She says plainly that she must earn her living, and adds that in the end she only wants to read books—she doesn’t want to have to write essays about them. As they part ways, Trevor tells Isobel he’ll see her next week.
Isobel can’t deny that she is different from these people. They have a privilege and a lightness she will never have. Even in spite of this, Isobel chooses to continue taking up with them, grateful for their recurrent invitations to join them in friendship.
Isobel, for the first time, feels alive. On Sundays she goes to the library and checks out the books her new friends are talking about. Isobel stays away from the kitchen more and more often, avoiding Mrs. Bowers, and finds herself living for Saturdays. Though Isobel feels alive, she thinks that she is “morally as bad as ever.” At nights, Isobel talks to her pillow as if it is Joseph, her new friends’ faceless instructor, and unpacks her thoughts for him. She wonders whether someone born bad could choose to be different, and confesses that she thought she could “make [her] life into a room and chose what came into it.” Isobel admits to her pillow, though, that life is actually more like a sea than a room—undertows carry you where you don’t want to go.
Isobel has a lot of questions about herself and her place in the world, which come up when she realizes that she is unable to hold all the threads of her life together—she cannot be good to everyone at once. Isobel turns to the specter of her new friends’ instructor for answers, believing that their cushy, intellectual life is the one she wants, and that their circumstances far outstrip hers in happiness and a sense of belonging. Isobel is afraid of being carried away in certain directions against her will, and wants to keep hold of the disorganized, disparate life she is making for herself despite the warning signs.
Madge has gotten engaged, and brings her fiancée Arthur to the boarding house to meet Mrs. Bowers. The two shake hands, and Mrs. Bowers retreats to the kitchen. Betty leaps up and congratulates Madge and Arthur, as do Mr. Watkin and Tim and Norman. Isobel tells Madge that she likes her ring—it is not a diamond, but a dark striped stone. Isobel watches with confusion while Betty plays hostess to Arthur; Mrs. Bowers stays in the kitchen. The next day, in the café, when Isobel’s new friends ask about the boarding house, she tells them things are bad—Mrs. Bowers is angry about Madge’s engagement.
As Isobel realizes that there are new tensions brewing in the boarding house, she longs even more to retreat in to the new world of her new friends. She is sensitive to mother-daughter struggles, and as a battle between Mrs. Bowers and Madge seems on the brink of unfolding, Isobel wants to get herself out of the crossfire.
Sure enough, when she returns to the boarding house, Isobel is lured into the kitchen, where she must sit and listen to Mrs. Bowers laments Madge’s “folly.” She calls Arthur a “religious crackpot” and believes that Madge, who has always been weak, is “possessed” by the religion and acting a fool for the first man who has said two words to her. Mrs. Bowers cannot believe that Madge has not even gotten a diamond engagement ring. Mrs. Prendergast attempts to soothe Mrs. Bowers while Isobel stays silent, but Mrs. Bowers does not want to be consoled.
Isobel realizes that there is more strife between Mrs. Bowers and Madge than she’d realized, but is unable to engage with Mrs. Bowers’ laments—she is, again, very sensitive to fights and conflicts between mothers and daughters, and does not want to play any role at all in whatever conflict is newly brewing.
Moreover, the other boarders have begun to act with hostility towards Isobel and even making fun of her clothing. Isobel laments the cruel treatment to “Joseph” each night, wondering why the other boarders hate her, but Joseph has no answers—Joseph is “a listener only.”
Isobel cannot yet see the reasons behind the newfound trouble she is having at the boarding house. She longs for the answers, but even the brilliant professor who has become her imaginary friend cannot give them to her.
At the café one afternoon, Janet notices a tall dark girl staring at their group from the window. When Janet mentions her, Nick stiffens and grows still. Janet scoffs that the girl at the window has “no self-respect at all,” and urges Nick to go talk to her and tell her “it’s no use.” Nick sits at the table, playing with a match. Kenneth tells Nick that there’s nothing he can do about it except to “wait until [the girl at the window] gets tired of it.” Isobel realizes that the girl at the window is Diana—the “past participle.” Isobel is curious about Diana. As the others talk derisively about Diana, Isobel thinks that she wishes just one of them had to stand “wrung in a doorway staring at someone [they] love, hopelessly.”
Isobel has known that there is something brewing beneath the surface of her new group since she met them—and now she sees what it is. Diana is a presence which reminds Isobel of the lack of love she experienced in her own childhood. Despite the group’s hatred and fear of Diana, Isobel recognizes that there is another side to the story, and that perhaps Diana is suffering in a way which she can understand but her new friends never will.
Nick and Trevor head home to their apartment, which the group colloquially calls Fifty-one, for its street address. They ask Isobel if she is coming along, and she goes with them. At Fifty-one, Janet introduces Isobel to Helen, the owner of the house who rents out the rooms. Janet tells Helen that they all had a “visitor” at the café. Helen tells Janet that Diana stopped by the house first, but that Helen didn’t tell her where the group was. Isobel thinks that Diana had been beautiful except for her “obsessed eyes.” Diana’s plight frightens Isobel.
As Isobel is at last invited from the café to the true hub of her new group’s friendship, she feels a sense of belonging. She is being inducted not only into their physical world, but their emotional one, as well, as she begins learning more about the drama and pain that lies just under the surface of their witty, happy exterior.
In the yard, a motorbike starts up, and the group remarks that Nick is “escaping.” Apparently, Diana has not been seen for a fortnight until today—the last time anyone saw her was after she broke up Nick and his last girlfriend, Anthea. If he takes up with anyone else, Janet says, Diana will be “bad as ever.” Isobel thinks of Nick as “an exiled prince,” driven out of his own kingdom by a furious woman. The group laments how “dreadful” things must be for Nick, stalked as he is, but notes that he never talks about his feelings to any of them.
Isobel realizes that Diana’s own form of abuse has calibrated Nick’s life and made him fearful, shy, and detached from his friends—just as Isobel’s mother’s own abuse did to her.
Trevor invites Isobel upstairs to his bedroom to look at some books. Isobel is panicked by the invitation, but tells herself that if Trevor had any ulterior motives, he would not have asked her in front of everyone—Isobel tells herself that Trevor thinks of her only as a reader, not a girl. Upstairs, Trevor hands Isobel a series of Russian novels and they begin discussing literature but soon a clock chimes—Isobel realizes it is already six, and she is late for dinner at the boarding house. Isobel hurries from back to the boarding house and slides into her place, slightly late. The other boarders look up at Isobel and acknowledge her arrival “without affection.” Isobel berates herself for having given in to forgetfulness, a “dangerous” pursuit. Isobel wishes she could know where she went wrong.
Isobel is using literature to escape in a much more practical way than ever before—she is neglecting her life at the boarding house in favor of this new life, steeped in books and discussions about literature with cool, intellectual people. Isobel is forgetting herself—a dangerous thing when her main mission in this part of her life is to discover herself. Isobel is finding it difficult to balance everything she has on her plate, and is struggling with who she wants to be in opposition to who she really is.
The next evening, Mrs. Bowers appears at the door, looking angry, and tells the boarders that one of them hasn’t changed their sheets. Isobel realizes it is her, and offers to run up and do it straight away. Mrs. Bowers softens, though, and tells her the sheets can wait until after dinner. Mrs. Bowers returns to the kitchen, and the rest of the boarders—Madge included—can hear her talking to Mrs. Prendergast derisively about Arthur. Madge approaches the kitchen and tells her mother to say whatever she has to say to her face. Isobel is “awed” by Madge, and wishes she had been able to find the courage to talk to her own mother that way. As Madge and Mrs. Bowers argue, Isobel realizes that she has, in a way, taken Madge’s place in the boarding house—she is at last “the favored child.” Isobel laments that “any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.”
Things at the boarding house are slightly falling apart for Isobel. She has spent so much time absorbed in her new world with her new friends that she has forgotten her allegiances and responsibilities at home. There are also forces beyond her control that have been disturbed life at the boarding house—tensions between Madge and Mrs. Bowers have run high, and though at first Isobel thinks that their causes are isolated, she soon comes to see that she is more involved in the domestic drama than she would like to believe. When Isobel notes that she has an idiot in her attic, she means that she is so starved for affection that she has sought it from Mrs. Bowers and has consequently displaced Madge in her own home.
As Isobel returns to the room, she reflects on the ways in which the “idiot” has played games with Isobel’s world, and has influenced her to move in certain directions. She wonders if she will be able to fight against this part of herself for the rest of her life. Isobel feels she now at least knows where she has been going wrong and why the other boarders must dislike her so much.
Isobel realizes that despite her best efforts, she has indeed been swept away by a force beyond her control. She laments the idea of having to “fight” something unseen within her for the rest of her life as she realizes that even more of her existence than she thought has been calibrated by her past traumas.
Isobel hears Madge’s footsteps and voice outside, and decides to go and see what Madge is up to. The door of Madge’s room is open, and she and Arthur are inside packing. Isobel offers to help, and Madge smiles kindly at Isobel. She asks Isobel to help Arthur take boxes down to the cars. Isobel consents, but is afraid of meeting Mrs. Bowers downstairs, and disappointing her and angering the “idiot.” Once Madge’s parcels are all loaded, Madge kisses Isobel goodbye—Isobel knows it is a “proxy kiss,” but feels she is doing something good just by being there to receive it.
Isobel feels guilty for the role she has played in unseating Madge from Mrs. Bowers affections, and wants to, in her own small way, try to make amends however she can. However, the damage she has done, perhaps unwittingly, is palpable, and there is sadness and longing in Madge’s proxy kiss—a kiss which is meant for Mrs. Bowers.
In the café, Kenneth and a boy named Mitch are bent over pages of manuscript while Janet watches them. The atmosphere inside is peaceful and buoyant, and as Isobel sits down with her friends, Janet tells her that Trevor and Nick have gone away for the weekend. Isobel and Janet look over the boys’ pages, and then Isobel heads over to Fifty-one to pick up a book from Trevor’s room.
Isobel is such a part of this group now that she gets to go to Fifty-one, their hangout, even when its main residents are not there. She feels that she at last belongs in a deep, meaningful way, and does not realize that this sense of belonging will soon become much more than she bargained for.
Once Isobel is upstairs, Helen comes to Trevor’s door—she tells Isobel that Diana is at the front door, but she can’t stand another minute of her. She asks Isobel to go downstairs and tell Diana that Helen is out, and that Nick is away. Isobel goes downstairs and opens the front door, finding herself face-to-face with Diana. She tells Diana that Helen is out. Diana surveys the living room, then pushes inside and sits down on the settee. She tells Isobel that she knows Helen is here, and avoiding her—she doesn’t blame Helen, she says, and knows that she herself is “a curse and a bore.” Isobel is shocked that Diana is talking to her this way when she doesn’t even know her name.
Diana, who has until now only appeared as a looming specter representative of grief and obsession, shows herself to be remarkably self-aware about what she is doing and the effect her actions have on others. Isobel is shocked by how frank Diana is, and how conscious of the state of things she is in spite of her humiliating and even frightening behaviors.
Diana becomes irate, believing that Nick is here in the house. Isobel insists that Nick is away for the weekend. Diana collects herself and insists that though Isobel probably thinks she’s shameless, she isn’t. Isobel realizes that though she is a stranger to Diana, Diana must know that people talk about her, and that Isobel knows all about her. Diana confesses to Isobel that she does feel shame—that often it’s all she ever feels. She tells Isobel that she has no pride and no self-respect, and on top of everything, has lost her job. Isobel realizes that Diana is using her as a messenger—Diana wants Nick to know how badly she is suffering. Diana then admits that she once thought Nick would come back to her when he saw what awful shape she was in—now that she knows he won’t, though, it doesn’t make any difference.
Diana has just met Isobel, but almost immediately begins pouring out her heart, soul, and fears to her. Diana knows that she is out of control, but admits that there is a manipulation to her actions which is intended to set things right for her against all odds. Diana has held out hope for so long that her embarrassing and shameful actions will eventually lead to her deliverance, but now she realizes that she has, in her own search for belonging and narrative, dug herself into a very deep hole from which there may be no escape.
Isobel asks Diana what she’s going to do for money—Diana says that she doesn’t care, though, as she is as good as dead. Isobel thinks to herself that perhaps when someone can’t change, and knows that they can’t, it’s possible that they are as good as dead. Isobel realizes that she has been speaking her thoughts out loud when Diana looks at her with furious eyes. Isobel says she doesn’t mean Diana specifically—just anyone who can’t adapt. Isobel asks Diana if she wants to go somewhere together—Diana looks skeptically at the coffee cups on the table. Isobel assures her that Nick is not here, but tells her that Helen did get up and run from her—Isobel asks Diana what she expects when everyone knows they can’t do anything for her.
This conversation about inertia and the inability to change rendering one “as good as dead” dredges up old fears and new inquiries for Isobel. She realizes that perhaps her mother was “as good as dead” because she was incapable of changing, and there is a part of Isobel which fears that underneath it all, she is the same. When Diana takes Isobel’s absentminded musings to heart, Isobel attempts to smooth things over, but still laments aloud that Diana has rendered herself beyond help and thus undesirable to others. There is a part of Isobel which knows this very thing could,, under just slightly different circumstances, become her same fate.
Together, Diana and Isobel walk down the road. Diana invites Isobel to come over to her house and have a real meal, but Isobel declines. Diana smiles sadly and notes that everyone has dates on Saturday night. Diana and Isobel both get on the bus in silence, and Isobel sits down and opens up the book she’s borrowed from Trevor: The Brothers Karamazov. Isobel reads all the way home and then at the boarding house, she opens the book up in her room, but finds she can’t really focus—she can’t stop thinking about Diana.
Isobel does not want to get too close to Diana—she knows that the others don’t like her, and that striking up a friendship with Diana would threaten Isobel’s inclusion in the group. Though this is just heaping one more cruelty on Diana, Isobel makes the choice to ignore her, despite Diana’s honesty and kindness towards Isobel.
Isobel finds herself thinking that Diana lit up at the bus stop because she wanted to claim Isobel as her new “victim.” Isobel realizes, though, that Diana is the victim, and berates herself for being “selfish and heartless.” Isobel plunges herself into the novel and reads until the dinner bell. Downstairs, the boarders all move gingerly, afraid of upsetting Mrs. Bowers, who has been angry since Madge’s departure.
Isobel goes back and forth between seeing Diana as a victim or victimizer. She has trouble admitting that the two identities can exist side-by-side: perhaps this was true for her mother, and perhaps it is true for Isobel herself.
After dinner, Isobel is hit with the fear that Diana herself has a “date” tonight—she fears Diana is going to kill herself, and that Isobel (and her spoken-aloud thoughts about inertia and being “as good as dead) is responsible. Isobel realizes it doesn’t matter what she said or what her intentions were, even if they were good or curious—Diana heard her words and is now going to act on them. Isobel does not seek Diana out, and instead puts herself to sleep. Each day that week, she buys the paper and flips through it, looking for a paragraph headlined “GIRL FOUND DEAD IN FLAT.”
Isobel realizes that Diana is unstable and buckling under the weight of her grief. Isobel is afraid that her words will be taken literally, when really Isobel was just speaking out loud and attempting to dissect an ideal born of her own pain and trauma. The guilt lingers around Isobel every moment of the day, as she does not want someone else to experience a similar kind of trauma and pain that Mrs. Callaghan instilled in Isobel.
Isobel wants to go to Fifty-One to see if she can find anything out about Diana, but does not dare—she does not want to be seen showing a special interest in the matter and thus seem guilty. Isobel cannot believe that she told Diana she was “as good as dead.” Isobel vows to never speak without thinking again.
Isobel’s her outsized guilt perhaps comes from having endured years of abuse herself. Her fixation on her guilt seems similar to her steadfast belief during her childhood that she was a liar.
Meanwhile, back at the boarding house, Mrs. Bowers is angry with Isobel. Isobel accepts her landlady’s ire passively, thinking that after all, she wanted Madge’s place—and now she has got it.
Isobel wanted a maternal influence in her life, not realizing that there are problems in any mother-daughter relationship—just because her relationship with Mrs. Bowers is not traumatic or abusive doesn’t mean it can’t be dissatisfying and strained.
At the café that Saturday, there is no talk of Diana—Isobel figures that if she had died, the group would be talking about her. Trevor is there, but Nick is not—Nick, though, Isobel notes, is “never really there.” After the café, Isobel and Trevor head back to Fifty-one, discussing writing as they go. Trevor tells Isobel that all he wants is to be a good critic. Back at Fifty-one, up in Trevor’s room, Trevor puts his arms around Isobel. Isobel stiffens and struggles, and Trevor releases her, apologizing and urging her to forget anything happened. He walks over to his desk, sits down, opens a book, and begins to read. Isobel places The Brothers Karamazov on Trevor’s bed and leaves, feeling that all the friendships she has worked for with the café crowd are now “gone in a second.”
As Isobel finds herself swept up not only in the drama swirling around Nick, but now her own drama with Trevor, she realizes that the narrative she wanted to be a part of has escaped her. She wanted to belong so badly that she didn’t ever stop to consider that perhaps she was not meant to belong with these people—now, all at once, the realization hits her.
Isobel wishes she could have pretended to want Trevor so that she could have been his girlfriend and at last “belonged”—but she felt she would be found out for being a fraud amongst them. The following Saturday is a lonely one, and Isobel wanders the streets feeling miserable and out of place. When she returns to the boarding house, no one talks to her, and she eats dinner in silence.
On Monday morning, at the office, there is a phone call for Isobel. She picks it up—it is Helen calling to tell her that Nick has died. Helen explains that Nick was in an accident on his bike the day before—a car hit him, and today he has passed away. Helen asks Isobel to go to Diana and break the news to her—Helen knows it’s a terrible task, but can’t think of anything else. Isobel tells Helen she won’t be able to go till later, but Mr. Walter, having overheard, touches Isobel’s shoulder and tells her she can leave work now. Isobel takes Diana’s address down and promises Helen she’ll go straight away.
The shady circumstances of Nick’s death leave a lot to the imagination. Since he had a stalker, it’s worth wondering whether Diana had some part in his death. Regardless, there is still a new grief that is now going to settle over Isobel’s life. She has longed to be a part of the narrative and the world of the university students, and now she is—for better or worse, and despite her recent separation from them.
Isobel’s coworkers bring her tea and help her look at maps to navigate her way to Diana’s flat. Isobel takes comfort in her coworkers’ kindness. Mr. Walter sends her on her way, telling her not to worry about getting back for the end of the day. As Isobel leaves the office, she rehearses what she’ll say to Diana in her head.
Despite the chaos of her current situation, Isobel realizes that she is indeed surrounded by love, support, and a sense of belonging—she was looking for it everywhere, and did not realize it was blossoming right in front her.
Isobel gets off the train in Diana’s neighborhood and finds her way to Diana’s “narrow, dingy white, shabby” apartment building. She knocks at Diana’s apartment door, and when Diana opens the door, Isobel finds her in a dirty nightgown, with tangled hair and bare feet. Diana’s apartment is in disarray, and Isobel fears that Diana will not be able to bear the news. Nevertheless, she breaks it plain and simple, telling Diana straightforwardly that Nick has died. As Isobel goes briefly into the details, Diana picks up a hairbrush and begins brushing her hair. Isobel believes that Diana is in shock, but then watches as relief spreads over her face. Isobel realizes that Diana feels the way Isobel felt when her mother died. Diana thanks Isobel for coming to tell her, and asks Isobel to tell Helen she’s sorry. Diana ushers Isobel toward the door and Isobel leaves.
Isobel has had a complicated relationship with Diana since the two met. She looks down on Diana but also pities her—she goes back and forth between feeling that Diana is a victimizer or a victim. As Isobel watches Diana experience a sense of relief upon hearing the news of Nick’s death—the same reaction Isobel had when her mother died— she realizes that Diana is just as complicated as she is, and has lived a life riddled with grief, humiliation, and a sense of being unwanted. Just as many of those negative feelings evaporated for Isobel when her mother died, Diana is now free of Nick’s influence over her, and Isobel realizes that she and Diana are more alike than she thought.
Isobel heads to Fifty-one, though she does not want to. Grief, she feels, is a terrible bore. She hates the shameful thought, but cannot suppress it. At Fifty-one, Helen greets Isobel and asks how Diana took the news. Isobel tells Helen that Diana didn’t react much at all. Outside, there is the sound of a car door closing—Helen realizes it is Nick’s mother coming to the house to collect his things. Helen offers her something to eat before offering to show her up to Nick’s room, but Nick’s mother insists on going up alone.
Isobel is sick of grief—it has dictated so much of her life. She thought that by making friends with the cool, interesting university students, she’d be flung into a narrative of heady joy, belonging, and intellectual stimulation, but instead she has encountered only more pain, trauma, and suffering.
Helen and Isobel sit quietly in the living room as they listen to Nick’s mother’s tortured screams coming from upstairs. Helen and Isobel run up the stairs; Isobel sees a bright bottle of pills in Nick’s mother’s handbag and gives her one to calm her. Together, Isobel and Helen take Nick’s mother into Trevor’s room and put her to bed. Isobel stays at Fifty-one until Trevor comes home, and then leaves, knowing that she does not belong with them. She does not go to the boarding house, but instead to a house where earlier in the week she’d seen a sign which read, “ROOM VACANT.”
Isobel realizes that it is impossible to permanently escape the darker aspects of life, no matter hard she tries to. As she cuts ties with her university friends, Isobel also seems to want to cut ties with her boarding house friends, since she goes to look at a new building.
That night, Isobel tells Mrs. Bowers that she’ll be leaving at the end of the week. Isobel thinks she can hear Mrs. Bowers say, “good riddance.” Isobel comes into the dining room crying, and Betty comforts her.
Isobel realizes that she has ruined several of the relationships which once nourished her, and feels she has no one to blame but herself.
Isobel begins feeling cheerful as she packs up her belongings in her room. She is glad to be escaping from “a grief not her own,” and is looking forward to outfitting her own apartment with her own little things. Isobel opens one of her books and reads a favorite passage of Auden before packing it. “You’re what you are and nothing you do will get you out of the wood,” the passage says. Isobel places the book in her suitcase and reflects on how “one is never quite alone.”
Isobel has been through a lot in the last several months—she has tried to discover who she is and find where she belongs in places that are not quite right for her. Finally realizing this, she resolves to move along. She knows that wherever she goes, she will carry herself—and the burdens of her past—with her, but she takes comfort in the wisdom of books as she always has, and feels ready for whatever lies ahead.