Larry Cook is a prominent Midwestern farmer with three daughters, Ginny (the eldest, and the narrator of the novel), Rose, and Caroline, the youngest. Ginny is married to Ty, a farmer, Rose is married to Pete, a musician from another state, and Caroline, the only one of the three daughters who attended college, is soon to be married to Frank. Rose and Ginny live on their father’s land, while Caroline lives in the city of Des Moines. Rose has been in and out of the hospital for breast cancer treatment, and will have to go undergo regular tests for the rest of her life.
As he gets older, Larry comes up with a plan to avoid paying death taxes or property taxes on his land: he’ll pass on his land to his three daughters while he’s still alive. When Larry announces his plan, Ginny and Rose are in favor of the idea, while Caroline is skeptical of it. Larry, a drunk, taciturn man, spitefully tells Caroline to get out of his house. He cuts Caroline out of the will, leaving Rose and Ginny in control of his hugely valuable farmland.
Around the time that Larry divides up his land, Jess Clark, the son of Harold Clark, Larry’s friend and rival, comes back to town after years spent traveling the world. Jess, the child of Harold and the brother of Loren Clark, is a magnetic, charismatic young man, who fled to Canada rather than fight in the Vietnam War. He immediately charms Ginny.
With Larry’s property now in the hands of Ginny and Rose, and with Caroline married to Frank and practicing law in Des Moines, life moves on. Ginny and Rose have big plans for their land; they want to convert it into a modern, up-to-date farm. Ginny and Rose take turns cooking meals for their aging father. As time goes on, though, Larry becomes increasingly morose, to the point where he ignores his children altogether. Ginny is reminded that Caroline was always Larry’s favorite child. Jess ingratiates himself with Ty, Pete, Rose, and Ginny, and before long the family has established a fun tradition: Monopoly night. However, Ginny and Rose continue to worry about Larry, who increasingly keeps to himself and seems bitter at his children.
Tension builds as word of Larry’s increasingly volatile behavior reaches Rose and Ginny. Larry drinks heavily, and on one occasion drives all the way to Des Moines and back. Rose, who’s tougher on her father than Ginny, suggests that Larry has Alzheimer’s disease. After months of silence, Ginny calls Caroline, who accuses her of stealing Larry’s property and only pretending to be reluctant to take it off his hands.
Jess takes long walks with Ginny, and Ginny finds herself falling in love with him. Ginny opens up to Jess about her inability to have children: she’s had five miscarriages in the past, though Ty only knows about three of them. The family learns that Larry has been in a car accident: he was driving while drunk, and hurt himself. After the accident, Larry becomes even more morose and unwilling to talk to his children. Soon after the accident, Ginny finds herself fantasizing about Jess, and eventually they have sex.
One night, Pete discovers that his pickup truck is missing, and deduces that Larry has driven off with it. He and Ty track down Larry—when they bring Larry back home (in the middle of a storm), Larry calls Rose and Ginny “whores” and accuses them of stealing his property and not taking care of him. He then stubbornly walks away from them, out into the rain. Late that night, Rose opens up to Ginny about her past: after their mother (Mrs. Cook) died, when Rose was a teenager, Larry raped her repeatedly. Ginny can’t remember anything of the kind happening to her.
Ginny and Rose proceed with their farming, borrowing lots of money to expand their land’s capability. Ginny and Rose try to confront Larry about his abuse at the annual church potluck, but at the potluck Larry and Harold (with whom Larry’s been staying) criticize Rose and Ginny for being bad daughters, and the entire community begins to turn against Rose and Ginny. Soon after the potluck, Ginny returns to Larry’s house, which is now empty, and remembers being raped by Larry—a memory she’s repressed for most of her adult life. She realizes that she and Rose always protected Caroline from Larry’s advances: by offering themselves up, they ensured that Larry never tried to rape his youngest daughter.
Jess becomes increasingly distant from Ginny, and Harold has a bad accident: he sprays himself with ammonia and ends up blinding himself. Soon after, Rose and Ginny receive word that Larry (with help from Caroline) is suing them to reclaim his property. Rose and Ginny, along with their husbands Pete and Ty, hire a lawyer, Jean Cartier, who advises them to be “perfect” in the way they run their farmland. Meanwhile, Ty discovers that Ginny had a miscarriage that she hid from him, and a distance grows between them.
Soon after, Pete has a drunken argument with Harold Clark, drives off into the night, and ends up crashing into a pond and drowning. In the following days, Ginny learns from Rose why Pete was arguing with Harold: he’d learned from Rose that Rose is having an affair with Jess. Ginny is jealous and offended that Rose would “steal” Jess from her. Secretly, she finds hemlock, a powerful poison, and prepares a jar of poisoned sausages, which she gives to Rose in the hopes that she’ll poison herself.
The hearing regarding Larry’s land proceeds, and Larry is put on the witness stand. He’s clearly senile, and fails to convince the judge that his case has any grounds. The judge sides with Rose and Ginny: their contract is valid, and they own Larry’s land. After the hearing, Ginny is afraid that her family has been torn apart forever. Impulsively, she tells Ty she’s leaving him and moves to Saint Paul, where she takes a job as a waitress and never moves back to her home.
Years pass, with Ginny receiving occasional letters from Rose (who, to her confusion, hasn’t died from the sausages yet). One day, years later, Ginny receives a visit from Ty, who, he explains, is moving to Texas. Farming the land has been hard work, and the farm has fallen deep into debt. Ty comes to ask Ginny for a divorce, but she never explicitly agrees to it.
Then, years later, Ginny learns that Rose is back in the hospital, very sick. She visits Rose and learns that Rose will die of cancer soon. After Ty’s move to Texas, Rose has become the sole owner of Larry’s old farmland. Ginny takes care of Rose’s daughters, Linda and Pamela, but she refuses to reconcile with Rose, even on Rose’s deathbed. She does, however, tell Rose about her plan to poison her. Rose is oddly uninterested in the plan—she tells Ginny that Jess left her long ago, and that Jess isn’t the good, charismatic man Ginny thinks he is.
Rose dies, leaving her property to Caroline and Ginny. Ginny and Caroline reunite in their father’s old house, and Ginny considers telling Caroline about how Larry used to rape her and Rose, but chooses not to. As the novel comes to an end, Ginny finds the jar of sausages, still in Rose’s cellar, and throws it away. She takes care of Linda and Pamela after their mother’s death, but continues to feel a profound sense of loneliness.