Isobel Callaghan and her family are on holiday at a lakeside boarding house. It is January—summer in Australia—and it is almost Isobel’s birthday. Her mother, however, has told her that there will be no presents this year. Isobel is unsurprised, as she has never gotten a present for her birthday; her mother always tells her that there is no money, or that it is “vulgar” to celebrate birthdays away from home, or that it is too close to Christmas for Isobel to expect anything. Last year, on their last visit to the lake house, Isobel told the other residents of the lake house that it was her birthday, and they showered her with coins as presents. Isobel’s mother and father berated her for “begging,” and this year, Isobel’s mother has instructed her not to tell anyone at all that it is her birthday. To pass the time, Isobel takes a book off of the grown-up’s shelf at the lake house’s little library and begins reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Isobel is so transported by the book that she doesn’t even care about her birthday, or presents, or her mean parents. The morning of her birthday, Isobel wakes up and runs out to the courtyard to whisper to the tree there that it is her birthday, but once she gets outside she sees another little girl, Caroline Mansell, sitting in the tree. Isobel blurts out to Caroline that it is her birthday, but that her birthday is a secret. Caroline insists that birthdays are never a secret, and returns inside. That afternoon at lunch, there is a small present wrapped in pink tissue waiting at Isobel’s place. Stunned, she opens the present, which is from Mr. Mansell, Caroline’s father. It is a beautiful enamel brooch. Isobel is so stunned she cannot even speak, and after the meal, takes the brooch up to her room to wrap and unwrap it over and over again. Her mother follows her up, and berates her for being an “ungrateful little bitch” and a “thankless little swine” while beating Isobel’s legs, but does not take the brooch from her. After the beating is over, Isobel wonders why her mother left her with the brooch—and if there are things that not even her mother can do. Isobel pins the brooch to her dress and studies herself wearing it in the mirror, unaware that “in one way or another” she will be wearing it all her life.
At home, Isobel is regarded by both her mother and her sister, Margaret, as a “born liar.” This stems from Isobel’s insistence that once, on the way home from school, she saw a fireball. Though Isobel concedes that she does sometimes lie, she asserts that she truly did see a fireball, and is frustrated that no one will believe her.
Isobel gets into trouble with one of the nuns at school for neglecting to pay her school fees, but after briefly transferring to another school, she is sent back. Isobel and her mother go to visit some well-to-do cousins, and on the way to the bus, Margaret wonders whatever became of her little gold bracelet. Mrs. Callaghan tells Margaret that Isobel lost the bracelet, but Isobel remembers her mother surreptitiously telling one of her friends a while ago that she’d given—or sold—her diamond ring to her solicitor. Isobel wonders what the truth is, and what lies her mother has also spun over the years.
One hot summer Sunday, Isobel is sitting in Mass when she feels the grace of God descend upon her. She feels it has come to her by mistake, but she nonetheless decides to devote herself to inhabiting fully a calm and pious state of grace. She stops fighting with her sister Margaret over their duties and chores, arousing her mother’s suspicions that she is up to something. Isobel’s mother demands Isobel tell her why she’s been “sulking” around so much, but when Isobel calmly states that she isn’t sulking, her mother becomes enraged and tries to provoke Isobel into a fight. Isobel sees a wildness behind her mother’s eyes and realizes that her mother’s goal is always to get Isobel to lose her temper and scream. Isobel refuses to let her mother get a rise out of her, and though she wins the battle, she senses that the war has just begun. Margaret takes a part in a school production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Mrs. Callaghan agrees to let her attend rehearsals. What Mrs. Callaghan doesn’t know is that there are boys in the play—Margaret begs Isobel not to tell their mother. Isobel keeps Margaret’s secret, but when Margaret comes home late from a couple of rehearsals in a row, their mother goes through Margaret’s things and unearths a brown paper bag of makeup, which she accuses Margaret of using to “chase boys.” Margaret tells their mother to stop going through her things, and it seems that Margaret, too, has won a crucial fight.
One afternoon, Margaret and Isobel come home from school to find their Aunt Noelene sitting in the kitchen. They love Noelene’s visits because she brings them ten-shilling notes and hand-me-down pieces from her successful clothing factory. After Noelene and May (Isobel and Margaret’s mother) get into a fight about May’s sister’s treatment of her late husband, Noelene leaves. It seems as if May has been defeated a third time. Isobel and Margaret go through the bag of hand-me-downs; Margaret finds a beautiful dress which is marked for Isobel. Isobel, though, wanting to be the image of grace, tells her sister she can have the dress. May insists that the dress was marked for Isobel and should be for Isobel, but Isobel takes Margaret up to their room and lets her try the dress on. While Margaret admires herself in the mirror, May comes into the room, approaches Margaret, and tears the dress off of her, ripping it in the process. Isobel at last breaks her promise to maintain a state of grace and begins screaming at her mother for being mean to Margaret. A look of relief at last washes over her mother’s face.
Isobel and Margaret’s mother has died, and their aunts Yvonne and Noelene consider what to do with the girls—particularly where to bring them up and how to dress them for the funeral, as the girls are poor and have no suitable clothes. As Isobel packs up her things, ready to set off for a job in the city the following day, she wishes she could feel even a little grief at her mother’s passing, but even during the funeral service she can only feel joy.
The following day, Yvonne takes Margaret out to the country to live with her but first drops off Isobel at a boarding house in the city where she will live while she works for an importer. Isobel is delighted to have a room of her own and no one to abuse her. She quickly gets to know the other residents of the boarding house, including the proprietor, Mrs. Bowers; her friend and assistant, Mrs. Prendergast; a kindly older woman named Betty; and an eccentric older man named Mr. Watkin. Isobel begins work the next morning—she has been hired due to her outstanding German skills but finds that she is lacking in her typing and shorthand skills. Nonetheless, most people at the office are kind, and the only person who rubs Isobel the wrong way is her boss, Mr. Richards, who often stands behind Isobel while she works and watches her struggle to type.
When Isobel visits Aunt Noelene’s house, Noelene stresses the importance of money, keeping a steady job, and fighting for what one deserves in this world, urging Isobel to ask for a raise soon so that she can keep up with her expenses. Despite her newfound independence and success at work, Isobel feels that all she wants is to “be one of the crowd.” Soon enough, she runs into a group of young, intellectual university students at a local café. She recognizes one of them as Vinnie Winters, a girl she and Margaret went to school with, and approaches the group. As Isobel begins to insert herself into the group, she finds herself pulling away from her odd but sweet friendships with Mrs. Bowers, Mrs. Prendergast, and Betty, and being drawn into the world of the pretentious and cliquish university students, whose social sphere is swirling with drama and intrigue. The most handsome and sensitive boy in the group, Nick, is being stalked by his ex-girlfriend, Diana, who seeks him out at the café and even at his home—a building managed by a woman named Helen, where the affable but superior Trevor also lives.
Things at the boarding house are disintegrating as Mrs. Bowers’ daughter, Madge, has become engaged to a devout man from a religious cult, much to her mother’s disappointment. As Madge moves out, Isobel realizes that she has been trying this whole time to replace Madge and at last become someone’s favorite child. Disturbed by this knowledge of herself, Isobel again seeks refuge with her newfound friends, but at Fifty-one—the building where Nick and Trevor live—she finds only Diana, who has miserably come to try and get in touch with Nick. Talking with Diana, Isobel muses that anyone who’s stuck in one position, or obsessed with only one thing, is “as good as dead,” and worries that she will drive Diana to suicide. It is Nick, however, who dies unexpectedly in a bike accident in the city—Helen breaks the news to Isobel over the phone and begs her to go and tell Diana. When Isobel arrives at Diana’s flat and shares the news, she watches a strange look of relief spread over Diana’s face, and realizes it is the same kind of relief Isobel herself experienced when her mother died. Isobel takes a room in a new apartment building and tells Mrs. Bowers she’s leaving. She packs up her room at the boarding house and reads a couple lines of poetry that warn her that nothing, not even a change of scenery, will be able to change her deep down.
Isobel wakes up at a strange man’s apartment—she has had a one-night stand with someone named Michael whom she met at a party. Thinking Michael is asleep, Isobel inspects his bookshelves and finds a book called Words of the Saints, which she feels powerfully and inexplicably drawn to. Isobel steals the book from Michael’s house when she leaves, determined to figure out why this book in particular called to her. Isobel returns to her dingy apartment and, struck by a sudden desire to spruce it up—and to avoid the “word factory” that has recently started churning to life in her mind, urging her to write—she goes to a shop and purchases supplies to embroider a square of fabric to place on the wall. Isobel feels pulled towards Michael’s book, though, and as she reads it, she encounters guidelines for achieving a state of grace by sacrificing one’s soul. Isobel decides to go back to the suburb where she grew up and retrace her steps in order to figure out what is drawing her to the book.
Back in her hometown, Isobel is assaulted by painful memories from her childhood as she walks the main road and visits her old church. Isobel decides to visit her childhood home, but on the way down the street, she hears a voice calling her—it is her old neighbor, Mrs. Adams. As a child, Isobel wrote a poem about Mrs. Adams’s cat, Smoke, and the poem was published in the newspaper. Isobel’s parents told her that Mrs. Adams would be angry with her and try to put her in jail for placing her name in the paper without her consent. Now, as Mrs. Adams calls Isobel’s name, Isobel fights a familiar instinct to run away. Mrs. Adams invites Isobel in for tea and shows her an album in which she has kept Isobel’s poem all these years. Mrs. Adams says that when Isobel was a little girl, she always tried to chase Isobel down to give her a notebook so that she could write more poems, but Isobel always ran away from her. Mrs. Adams intuits that Isobel’s mother was behind Isobel’s odd behavior and frightfulness. Isobel realizes that her parents never wanted a writer in the house—they never wanted anyone who could bear witness to or record their cruelties. As Isobel leaves Mrs. Adams’s house, she breaks down in tears, sobbing for her lost childhood and the cruelties she’s endured. She picks herself up, though, and resolves to completely dedicate herself to being a writer. She picks up a notebook on the way back into the city, and as soon as she gets home, she begins writing. The next morning at work, Isobel’s friends ask her how her weekend was. Isobel replies that it was nice, but she smiles so happily that her coworkers tease her about having “met someone.” Isobel smiles again, admits that she did indeed meet someone, and sets to work at her typewriter.