The plot concerns the marriage of Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay, who meet when he tends to her bloodied brow in his family's grocery store, located in a primarily Eastern European conclave in Baltimore, in December 1941. They marry after Michael is discharged from the Army with a permanent injury caused by a deliberate shot from someone he assaulted.
Michael and Pauline settle in a small apartment above the store, but their widely different temperaments and expectations quickly create dissension in the relationship. He is repressed, controlling, and quiet; she is loud, emotional, and romantic. At Pauline's insistence, they move to the suburbs, where they raise three children: George, Karen and Lindy.
Lindy runs away to San Francisco in 1960 and becomes involved in the growing drug culture. Eight years later, her parents retrieve Pagan, their three-year-old grandchild, while Lindy detoxes in a rehab community. The slowly-crumbling marriage finally dissolves when Michael leaves Pauline on their 30th anniversary. For Michael, convinced that he and Pauline didn't have the faintest idea what they were doing when they married or how to conduct a marriage (that they were "amateurs"), divorce is a salvation. For Pauline, it's a tragedy that leaves her in despair.