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Our story begins in Florence, Italy, where two English women, Lucy Honeychurch and her spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett, are at a hotel full of other English tourists. They are displeased with their rooms, which don’t have a pleasant view from their windows, but a pair of unconventional fellow guests, Mr. Emerson and his son, George, offers to switch rooms with them. This sparks a whole discussion of what is proper and what is improper, a dialogue that continues throughout the book. Eventually, the women take the Emersons’ offer, only after a visiting pastor, Mr. Beebe, convinces Charlotte that it’s okay.
The majority of the hotel guests are still unconvinced that the Emersons are socially acceptable, though. Lucy, who realizes early on that Mr. Emerson is actually just an old sweetie-pie who doesn’t play social games well (or refuses to), is saddened by the attitude of the other guests towards the quirky father-son duo. We see that she’s confused and not entirely convinced by the strict rules and regulations of “good” society, and that she’s tempted to follow her own emotions sometimes, rather than just doing as she’s told. She wishes something would happen to her – and it does. She and George both witness a dramatic murder in a Florence square, and both are irreversibly changed by it (as we all would be, no doubt). This makes Lucy realize that life is not as simple as she’d thought it was up to this point in her life, and she begins to slowly question her belief in the social order she grew up with.
The plot gets thicker when the guests at the hotel go on what is meant to be a pleasant drive in the country. When they arrive at their destination, a particularly beautiful “view” from a hilltop, everyone wanders off to explore. Lucy inevitably (though unintentionally) finds George, and, overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the beauty of Lucy herself, he kisses her. She is shocked! We are shocked! Charlotte, who accidentally witnesses the kiss, is shocked! Part One of the book ends as Charlotte and Lucy beat a quick retreat from Florence, attempting to avoid any further complications with George and his father.
Part Two takes us back to Lucy’s home in pleasant southern England, Windy Corner. We meet her family (her charming mother and her adorably ridiculous brother, Freddy), and her stuffy new fiancé, Cecil Vyse. Cecil is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but he certainly thinks he is. Through Cecil’s devious and rather cruel maneuvering, the Emersons end up moving into the neighborhood. Their previous relationship with Lucy is a total coincidence – Cecil’s a fool, not a monster! He doesn’t know about Lucy and George’s fraught relationship, and he only brings the Emersons to town to provoke a local landowner, who’s concerned with finding the “right” kind of tenants. Everything converges upon Lucy: George, who she secretly loves (it’s a secret to her, too), Cecil, who she thinks she loves, her family, Mr. Beebe the pastor, and, to make matters even worse, Charlotte. Windy Corner is suddenly a powder keg of potential drama.
The spark that blows the whole thing up is a novel written by Miss Lavish, a fellow traveler they met at the hotel in Florence. In this trashy romance novel, a passionate kiss identical to the one Lucy and George shared is described. Unaware of this awkward fact, Cecil reads the scene out loud – he just thinks the novel’s cheesiness is hilarious. However, he doesn’t realize that in so doing, he reminds both Lucy and George of their Italian encounter. This inspires George to kiss Lucy a second time when Cecil’s momentarily out of the way.
Lucy is torn between inexplicably complicated feelings for George and her social obligation to Cecil, which, in her mind, masquerades as love. She sends George away, claiming that she doesn’t love him, but he manages to make her see how ridiculous Cecil is. She then realizes (thankfully) that she doesn’t love Cecil, and breaks off her engagement with him. All of a sudden, she’s down from two suitors to none – and she attempts to resign herself to a life of spinsterhood. She makes desperate plans to travel to Greece, hoping to escape her tumultuous feelings.
But when true love comes a-callin’, packing up and going to Greece is not the answer (a valuable lesson for all of us to learn). At the last moment, Lucy runs into Mr. Emerson, who comes right out and begs her to face her emotions. She realizes that she’s been lying to herself and everyone else – she really does love George. She finally throws off the restrictions and expectations of society and runs off with George. The novel ends where it began, in a room with a view in Florence, with Lucy and George happily united. It’s not perfect – Lucy is alienated from her family, who feels that she’s acted poorly – but it’s still safe to say that love wins out over society in the end.