Mary and John were two tentative and compliant people whose respective families decided that they would be a good match. Mary was sweetly timid and quiet. John was hapless and a bit bumbling. At the urging of their families, they marry. Only one month into their marriage, John receives a posting on a diplomatic mission to China with the Foreign Office. With John off in China, Mary is sent to help oversee an elderly, failing aunt's large estate until such time as her husband returns. Both of their experiences change them greatly from the meek people who married each other at their families' behest, so when John returns home after two years of being gone, both he and Mary will have to adjust to more than they expected.
John's sojourn in China has made him opinionated and confident. He's looking forward to coming home to his compliant little wife. But Mary's tenure with her aunt has taught her that she is very capable as well. John sees Mary's new persona as bossy and managing while he comes off as controlling and dismissive. While these new personalities are irritating to the other, in the extreme, they are also, inexplicably, attracted to these more confident manifestations of each other as well. As their domestic drama and readjustment to each other progresses in fits and starts, there are also two other developments that come to play a large role in the story. On his return to London, John has taken to frequenting the slums and dangerous areas near the docks in disguise in order to keep tabs on the ongoing situation in China, relying on tavern owners and Chinese sailors for his information. Meanwhile, Mary meets an aristocratic elderly neighbor thanks to her drawing. Mary's likenesses of the people she draws are uncanny, highlighting characteristics that the subjects might not know about themselves or that they might want to remain hidden. As information about the political situation with China goes ominously silent, Mary makes some grievous social missteps, and John's family tries to step in to remedy things for their supposed inept son just as they always have. Both John and Mary have to come to an appreciation of themselves, stepping back from the long perceived view of them that family has held, and then they must come to an appreciation of the more confident person that is their spouse in order to find their happiness.
The story's pacing is rather slow and their chemistry as a couple is a bit iffy. John as a character is unappealing and domineering and Mary still retains some of her timidity, especially with her husband, making her a little frustrating for the reader. The element of intrigue helps the story line but pieces of the resolution come from out in left field, with John suddenly remembering things that were never introduced before the climax. The idea of spouses who change almost beyond all recognition and must learn to live with and love each other is a good one and the story is ultimately sweet as a result but it wasn't altogether satisfying.