In a weak moment, sardonic journalist Lydia, recovering from a faithless lover, invites an emotionally needy acquaintance, to accompany her to a primitive cottage in rural Wales. Never particularly fond of Betty, "the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes," Lydia finds herself alternating between resentment of Betty's good sense and optimistic outlook, and toleration of her desire to be helpful and, not incidentally, do the cooking. The two women have decidedly different temperaments, with Lydia often cynical, worldly, and full of snide comments, while Betty is honest, direct, and patient. Their conversations, often hilariously ironic dialogues, show two people who have nothing in common, stuck with each other for a vacation and toughing it out.
Hywel, a dour farmer; Elizabeth, his fearful wife (with a secret lover); Beuno, Hywel's brother, who is studying to be a priest; and randy Doctor Wyn provide Lydia and Betty with their only real social life--a dull dinner party given by Elizabeth, visits by Beuno (whom Lydia regards as "one of her own kind") to discuss philosophy, trips to the Fair and to a concert, walks in the countryside, and eventually a grand finale of a picnic, all of which offer a marked contrast to Lydia's lively, intellectual life in the city.
In brief dramatic interludes, interjected throughout the narrative, Hywel's sister Angharad, a deformed and mute "free spirit" (or demon) who roams the countryside, comments poetically on what she observes of these people and their behavior when she looks through windows and eavesdrops on conversations in the woods. Drawn to nature instinctively, she notes the contrasts between human nature and the life she sees in the woods and countryside. "If the land was a graven image, then Angharad was its priestess." Mysterious, "unexplained laughter," heard only by Lydia, adds mystical overtones to the novel, though the laughter is usually associated with observations made by Angharad. Gradually, Lydia begins to learn more about man and nature, love and betrayal, and good and evil, especially the nature of Satan, whom she calls by the much less threatening name of "Stan." Dry, ironic humor contrasts with genuine sadness, and cynicism with sensitivity here, as Lydia's farcical intrusions into the country life lead her to new understandings and a greater appreciation of the real world. Mary Whipple