The novel centers on the story of a few summer months in 1998 in Stratford, Ontario against the backdrop of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The novel is told by a third-person narrator, who selectively changes from the point of view of one character to another, but it is Jane Kincaid, a property maker for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, whose perspective dominates throughout. Jane Kincaid is an immigrant from the United States, more specifically from a quintessentially southern town somewhere in Louisiana, aptly called Plantation. She left the United States to begin a new life as an artist, in essence, to escape her family (which nonetheless provides her with a modest but stable income from an inheritance)—she even shed her birth-name Aura Lee Terry when she met her husband Griffin, an up-and-coming young Shakespearean actor. The two lead an entirely ordinary, reasonably happy suburban existence, with a seven-year-old son (Will), a dog (Rudyard) and a housekeeper/nanny (Mercy Bowman).
But even in the beginning, the neat threads of this ordinary life begin to unravel around the attractive and ambitious young theater talent Griffin. His personal beauty and desirability lead Jane to suspect that other women, specifically Griffin's stage partner Zoë Walker, 21 and herself a stunning figure, may be after him.
Much of what follows in some way hinges upon Griffin's personal attractiveness, although many other things happen that also put pressure on Jane's youthful obliviousness to the world's cruelty and proclivity to cause pain even in the moments of greatest happiness. Troy Preston, an old high-school boyfriend, serves as harbinger of this pain: he shows up out of the blue, having pilfered his talents and lost his promise, and sexually assaults Jane, ejaculating on her dress and face. A few hours later Jane hears that he has died in a car accident. While this episode haunts her throughout the narrative, she never speaks about it to anyone, not even her psychiatrist. The town is also menaced by a rape-murderer, who kills two women before he kills himself with an overdose of drugs. Furthermore, Jane receives a strangely aloof letter from her mother telling her that her sister Loretta has committed suicide.
Failed communication between people intensely close to each other is at the core of the quotidian tragedies that unfold in this novel. A telephone line cut by the spade of an over-eager gardener serves as the physical manifestation or symbol for this failure to connect. This cut telephone line (which seems as anachronistic as the letter from the mother in an age of email, short messages and mobile phones) prevents two crucial phone calls: one from Griffin to his director Jonathan Crawford and one from Jesse Quinlan to his nephew Luke, the gardener who cut the phone line and his anchor in life. Jesse seeks help and when he fails to reach Luke in that crucial moment, he descends further into drugs and becomes a stranger to himself, a rapist and murderer. Griffin was to give Jonathan an answer to his ultimatum either to begin a sexual affair with him or to lose his chances for the desired break-through in his acting career. Soon after, Griffin is informed that he will not get the coveted lead roles in the next season, which devastates him and leads him to agree to another meeting with Jonathan. Finally, Griffin gives in to his ambition and Jonathan's advances which are somehow more sophisticated, as the narrator points out, than the usual sleazy proposals to enter stardom through the gate of sexual favors. Jonathan, who thinks of himself as "a sculptor of talent" (128) genuinely desires Griffin and there is an element of pedagogical eros in their relationship; the older man sincerely believes that Griffin will grow as a man and as an actor if he submits to his power: "I want to teach you how to accept the fact of being desired" (139). Griffin does submit and he does leave his family – without explanation. Jane is the last to find out that Griffin's affair is not with a younger woman but with an older man.
Jane develops her own overpowering desires that are quite independent from Griffin's escapades: when the telephone repairman, Milos Saworski, a polish immigrant with limited command of English, enters her house, she is completely overwhelmed by what she experiences as his unearthly beauty. When Griffin leaves, her pursuit of the "angel-man" becomes more determined and she becomes a living contradiction to Jonathan's assessment of women as sexually mostly passive and incapable of such aggressive pursuit. She asks Milos, himself married and a young father of a dying infant, to model for her in the nude, a proposal which he accepts with knowing innocence and an entirely masculine submission that mirrors the scene between Jonathan and Griffin. Jane's gaze upon Milos' beauty exactly parallels Jonathan's desire for Griffin.
While sexual desires unravel families and love relationships in this novel, it is the love between fathers and sons that disrupts these momentarily beautiful but cruel and ultimately destructive desires. Griffin's precocious son Will is estranged from both of his parents; Milos' baby eventually dies because of his father's inaction (his wife has kept the newborn baby out of the reach of doctors for religious reasons); Jonathan's son, twenty one and full of promise, is killed by revolutionaries in Peru. The news of this murder is brought by Jonathan's former wife in person and it leads him to see that the affair with him is just as wrong for Griffin as his own marriage had been for himself; he releases Griffin and sends him back to his family.
A few months later, in April, the novel comes back to Jane, Griffin and Will, a happy family unit watching a procession of Swans released from their winter domicile indoors. With the help of her mother's money, Jane has bought the house and made it the home she desired. The novel has come full circle to the peacefulness of the beginning, but this renewed peacefulness seems less precarious because it has been tempered by essential conflict and near break-up. The novel thus ends on a surprisingly hopeful note with a vision of spring and new life.
Griffin Kincaid, her husband; an actor just turned 30;
Will Kincaid, seven years old, their son;
Jonathan Crawford, director;
Zoë Walker, an actress, 21;
Nigel Dexter, actor, Griffin's friend;
Mercy Bowman, Will's babysitter.