The novel follows the fortunes of Cathy Scarlet and her college friend, Tom Feather, who set up a catering business together (the ‘Scarlet Feather’ of the title). The two are close, but not romantically involved – Cathy is married to Neil Mitchell, the son of the wealthy household where her mother Lizzie used to scrub floors, and Tom is in a relationship with beautiful Marcella, who dreams of being a model. Neil’s mother Hannah, against the marriage of her son to the cleaner’s daughter, makes life hard for Cathy, while Marcella’s ambitions come between her and Tom. There is also a growing distance between Cathy and Neil due to the pressures of Neil’s high-profile law career, and Cathy’s realisation that her husband sees the business as a hobby.
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