It is 1925 and we find the glam couple psychiatrist Dick Diver and obscenely wealthy Nicole Diver, formerly Warren, and their pre-kindergarten son and daughter, Lanier and Topsy (yes, we realize Topsy is no longer au courant as a name, but back then it was all the rage) at their home on the French Riviera, giving fabulous parties, and making people fall in love with them. When the seventeen-year-old starlet, Rosemary Hoyt, leading lady in the blockbuster film Daddy’s Girl comes onto their extravagant scene, she quickly becomes the latest Diver groupie.
Rosemary wastes no time falling in love with Dick Diver. And since her mother tells her, "now you’ve found your first nut to crack and it’s a good nut – go ahead and put whatever happens down to experience," she pursues him directly. Things conflicted get when he starts to fall in love with her, too, but still loves his troubled wife, Nicole, deeply, and fears that his relationship with Rosemary will push her toward a complete breakdown. When Nicole does break down in a Paris hotel, Dick quickly gets her back home, leaving Rosemary to her career. But, Dick can’t get over Rosemary, and Nicole knows it.
Did we mention that Nicole and Dick met in a Swiss psychiatric clinic when she was seventeen and he was 26? This info isn’t revealed until we’re a third off the way into the story. Nicole was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which seems to have been caused by her father raping her when she was eleven or twelve or thirteen. After meeting Dick, she began writing him letters, and believes that their long distance communication "cured" her. He tried to resist falling in love with her, but she was too sweet and beautiful to resist. Well, like seven years later in 1926, Dick decides to buy the clinic and run it with his friend Franz Gregarovius. Nicole agrees, but Shmoop wonders if being back in that environment is the best thing for her mental health, or if it will, as they say, complicate matters even more.
We get a climax duo in Tender is the Night. So let’s see, Nicole and Dick have been living at their Swiss Psychiatric clinic for the past 18 months. It’s now May, 1927. Nicole gets a letter from a former lady patient of Dick’s accusing him of putting the moves on her daughter. Dick has in fact kissed the young lady, but tells Nicole the mother is delusional. Nicole sees this for what it is, Dick hiding from the truth behind the alleged insanity of others. That is, if he wants to deny something someone says, he just accuses them of being bonkers.
Nicole takes this personally for obvious reasons. So later that day she has a freak-out on a Ferris wheel, and then she grabs the wheel while Dick is driving and tries to steer the car off a cliff, with her, Dick, Lanier and Topsy along with it. And that is climax one.
After that, Dick needs a vacation. He takes the long way to Rome, (stopping in the U.S. for his father’s funeral – when it rains, it pours, folks) and runs into, hooks up with, fights with, and breaks up with Rosemary, gets really drunk, punches a Roman cop. Which you don’t do unless you don’t mind broken bones, a severely poked eye, barely escaping death, and the loss of, as Nicole’s super duper rich sister Baby Warren puts it, one’s "moral superiority." Ouch.
No, things aren’t getting any easier. When too many people around the clinic notice the reek of booze on Dick’s breath, an agreement is reached and he and Nicole head back to their place on the Riviera, but things are no better between them. When they run into Tommy Barban, Nicole’s fantasy lover, and when Rosemary pops into town, all we can do is hope nobody dies tragically.
Dick and Rosemary just don't have it, but Nicole and Tommy do. Dick, Nicole and Tommy amicably decide that Dick will go and Tommy will stay. And he does, right away.
All we really know is that at the end of the novel, which is set at some indeterminate time in the fairly distant future (their future, our past). Nicole and Tommy are still together, but she still talks about how much she loves Dick. She and Dick still keep in touch. We understand that things haven’t been easy for him in the U.S. where he lives, and he’s practicing general medicine somewhere in the New York state area.