I think Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" is one of my very favorite short stories from all the stories I've read over the past few months. I have a Virago edition of Roman Fever and Other Stories, but you can read the story online here. I plan on reading the rest of the stories in the volume and hope they are even half as enjoyable as this was. Now the trick is how to talk about the story without giving too much away. I'll try to not to share too many details, but beware of possible plot spoilers.
The story was published in 1934, apparently after Wharton had suffered from influenza on a visit to Rome. It's been compared to stories written by Saki and O. Henry in that it has a shocking twist at the end that you might not see coming. I've not yet read either author (at least recently), so I can't compare, but it put me in mind of Guy du Maupassant's "The Necklace", which also has an ironic twist at the end. From the little I've read about "Roman Fever" I'm not sure it's taught or studied much (though apparently it does appear frequently in anthologies), which is a pity, it's that good!
The story begins happily enough in Rome. Two wealthy American widows are vacationing there with their daughters. As Alida Slade and Grace Ansley overlook the Forum and enjoy the languid afternoon they talk about their own pasts nostalgically, which have criss crossed over the years. Their grandmothers were warned to take care of Roman fever, easily caught when out at night. And their own mothers guarded them from "sentimental dangers". Alida and Grace's daughters seem to have far more free reign. They've gone off to lunch with two Italian aviators, one being a highly suitable match. To the chagrin of Alida, Grace's daughter, Babs (who's lovely and vivacious), will likely catch the young man's eye and attention.
As young women Alida and Grace spent time in Rome as well. As the talk turns to their own Roman experiences, the women seem to talk to cross purposes. Suddenly it's not all so sunny and picturesque anymore. Alida was betrothed to a handsome and successful lawyer, Delphin Slade. Despite being betrothed, there was some flirtatiousness between Grace and Delphin. Jealousy and vindictiveness overtook Alida and she wrote a letter to Grace asking her to come to the Colosseum one night after dark, but signing Delphin's name. I'll stop here and not give anymore of the story away, but I will say that Grace caught a fever.
Despite the 'shocking' ending, the story is actually quite subtle and very well crafted. She leads up to the denouement very carefully and with a close reading you are suspicious of the relationships and probably will see it coming. I believe this was a later work and it's obvious she was at the top of her game! Now I need to read more of Wharton's fiction as well!