The painter Elaine Risley returns to Toronto, the city where she grew up, for a retrospective show of her art. Her return to the city prompts her to reminisce about her childhood—the following narrative is told in the form of extended flashbacks, which are periodically interrupted for brief interludes of the older Elaine in her ex-husband Jon’s Toronto apartment or walking through the city.
The daughter of an entomologist, Elaine grows up traveling from place to place with her father, mother, and brother Stephen because of her father’s seasonal work. After the end of World War II, they stop moving as often and settle in Toronto during the school year, where Elaine befriends Carol and Grace and starts attending school.
Elaine and her family travel for a few months in the summer, and when they return a new girl has moved to town and joined Elaine’s friend group—Cordelia. Cordelia is charismatic and quickly becomes the group’s de facto leader. However, their friendship soon takes a dark turn as Cordelia prompts the other girls into bullying Elaine. They target her self-esteem, observing and criticizing her looks and every decision she makes until Elaine falls into a state of depression and powerlessness. The only source of hope in her life is a glass cat’s eye marble that she keeps in a red purse. She attends church with Grace’s family, although her own family is not religious, and finds a faith in God that will soon be tested by the relentless abuse thrown at her by her so-called friends. Too scared to abandon her friends by turning to an adult for support, Elaine remains in these relationships until the bullying escalates to a breaking point.
One day, Cordelia throws Elaine’s hat off a bridge into the frozen river, where the girls are not supposed to wander because of stories of dangerous men who attack women down there. The girls force Elaine to retrieve the hat but abandon her when she falls into the frozen river-water. Elaine has a near-death vision and thinks she sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who guides her to safety and helps her end these toxic relationships.
In high school, Elaine rekindles her friendship with Cordelia. She seems to have forgotten or repressed these childhood traumas, and this time Elaine has the power in their relationship. She taunts Cordelia, who has fallen into a depression and does not manage to graduate on time—in fact, Cordelia is sent to a school for delinquent girls, whereas Elaine graduates with excellence in biology and the ambition to become an artist. The two lose touch.
After high school, Elaine attends university where she studies Art and Archeology and takes additional classes in painting. She starts a secret affair with her art teacher, an artist from Eastern Europe called Josef Hrbik—though he is older and seems at first to have some power to manipulate her, she abandons him with ease in the end and ultimately leaves that relationship unscathed. At the same time, she starts a relationship with Jon, a fellow art-student. When she becomes accidentally pregnant with her daughter Sarah, the two decide to get married. She describes the relationship as toxic and hostile—they have vicious fights where they throw things at each other, and they ultimately divorce (though they remain friends).
In the midst of this period in university, Elaine meets with Cordelia again, this time in a diner. Cordelia chose not to go to university and instead pursue an acting career—she describes her roles in the Shakespearean festival, which she invites Elaine to attend, but it appears that her former power is further waning. They drift out of contact again for a couple of years, until Elaine finds Cordelia in a mental facility, where her parents have had her committed. Cordelia desperately begs Elaine to help her escape, but she refuses—Elaine sends her a letter, but it comes back return-to-sender, implying that Cordelia did manage to escape. This is the last time that Elaine and Cordelia see each other in person: for the rest of the novel, Cordelia haunts Elaine in the form of flashbacks and apparitions. Elaine never frees herself from the expectation that she will see Cordelia again and that their lives are intertwined, even decades in the future.
Elaine develops a career as a painter, which is slow at first—she paints objects and people from her childhood, usually in connection to some kind of traumatic or symbolic memory. She doesn’t quite fit into the highly-political feminist art scene, but she does try it out. Over time, her work gradually gains renown, which leads to its ultimate exhibition. She falls in love with Ben, a much kinder and simpler man, has another daughter, Anne, and seems to build a successful and happy life. She faces other tragedies: for example, she grows increasingly distant from her brother in adulthood. The last time she sees him is at a talk he gives about quantum physics in Toronto—they communicate sporadically through letters, but their lives have completely diverged, and she reveals quite suddenly that he ended up dying dramatically in a plane hold-up by terrorists, who shot him and ended his life prematurely and unexpectedly.
Though she is consistently haunted by her tragic memories and infused with strong feelings of guilt and anger, Elaine has to face the reality that she and Cordelia will never have the resolution that she hoped for when she does not come to Elaine’s retrospective. At the end of the novel, Elaine has held a successful retrospective, had a relatively positive article written about her, and is prepared to return to her husband—however, what the novel reveals is the profound and lasting impact that one’s past, particularly traumatic memories, have on one’s life.