The novel opens with an unnamed narrator writing a letter from Cairns, Australia to her eighteen-year-old niece, Alice. The narrator, who the reader learns at the end of the letter is named Fay, has not seen Alice in sixteen years but has heard from her mother—Fay’s sister Enid—that Alice has dyed her hair black and green. Alice has told Fay that although she is studying literature in college, she does not see the point of much of her reading, in particular the works of Jane Austen. Fay wonders how she can possibly explain literature to Alice, but nonetheless she sets out to try.
Fay acknowledges the difficulty of appreciating serious literature in a world filled with distractions like television and popular novels, but she implores Alice to try and understand “the pleasures of a good book.” In order to illustrate the value of literature for Alice, Fay describes a metaphorical place she calls the City of Invention. In the City of Invention, Fay tells Alice, all the architects are writers and the visitors are readers, coming to explore and enjoy the excitement and beauty of the vast array of houses. Fay tours Alice through the City, noting how the neighborhoods differ, how some buildings withstand the test of time while others fall, and how some places are always the most popular with visitors. In her description, Fay also hints that she has been visiting the City since childhood, when her parents separated and she left home with her father while Enid stayed behind with their mother. To appreciate Jane Austen, Fay says, Alice must travel more widely in the City of Invention. She also notes that Alice intends to write a novel of her own, but tells her that she should not do so until she is older and better acquainted with the City.
Fay continues to write to Alice, detailing different aspects of literature and especially Jane Austen’s works in each letter. She also hints at the events of her own life and Alice’s. In the next letter, she expresses excitement at having just finished a novel and notes how much she always loves that sensation. Fay goes on to describe the various internal and external pressures that constrain writers as they work, such as the idea of the Muse, the opinions and needs of friends and family, and the social pressures on women to be charming even in their creative work. She notes that although the pressures of life can be exhausting, they can also provide the necessary fuel for creative work.
Fay is interested in the ways that historical context can shape a writer’s work, and she gives Alice a detailed overview of the times in which Jane Austen lived. Far from being boring or timid, Fay argues, Austen’s novels are actually a thoughtful and in some ways rebellious reaction to world around her. Fay focuses in particular on the many hardships of Georgian England, especially for women, and tells Alice how lucky she is to live in the modern day. Fay also notes that times changed considerably during Austen’s short lifetime, and wonders about the role that novels might have played in that and other long-term societal changes. The reader also learns that Enid has written a letter to Fay, expressing concern about Fay’s feminist influence on Alice.
After establishing Jane Austen’s historical context, Fay goes on to detail Austen’s life, from her childhood as the daughter of a clergyman, to her education at boarding schools, to her adulthood living in her mother’s home following her father’s death. Fay speculates that although Austen’s family was cultured, loving, and relatively wealthy, Austen felt constrained by the need to always be well-behaved. Her novels, Fay thinks, draw from her challenging reality while simultaneously creating a more tolerable one for herself and her readers. Reflecting on the overwhelming desire that writers feel to pursue their work, Fay notes that Austen began writing at a young age and must have found a sense of mastery and excitement in her work.
Fay goes into further detail about the perils facing women in Georgian England, especially childbirth, and notes that Austen’s decision not to marry or have children was a perfectly rational one. Fay analyzes Austen’s early letters and writings to show Alice how Austen valued herself as a writer and understood the power of fiction, “raising invention above description.” However, Fay also acknowledges the futility of trying to extrapolate meaning from old documents, saying of the available information about Austen, “You can deduce pretty much what you wish.” Fay promises Alice further analysis later, but ends the letter saying she must pack for her return trip to England.
In her next letter, Fay reflects on her life as a professional writer, in particular the demands and exhaustions of having to travel and interact with her readers in person. She wonders about how Jane Austen’s life would have been different, as she read to her family and friends at home and noted their reactions to her work. Fay tells Alice that this attention to audience is crucial for every writer of fiction, and advises Alice to always write for the real people who will read her books. She imagines Austen’s writing table in her family’s home, where she was often interrupted, and speculates that such a connection to the life of those around her might have made for ideal writing conditions. Furthermore, Fay feels that the writer’s responsibility to readers can even be seen as a moral one, as novels demonstrate how people should and should not behave. In the City of Invention, effects clearly follow causes and give readers valuable perspectives on how best to life.
Fay writes one letter to her sister Enid, reassuring her that she is not corrupting Alice. Fay also asks Enid to consider reconciling with her, insisting that she did not base a fictional character in her novel on Enid, even though one character prepares her husband bread rolls in the same way that Enid does for her husband, Edward. Fay tells Enid that she misses her and hopes they can have a closer relationship.
Fay continues to write to Alice as she makes her way back to England and eventually arrives in London. She goes into more detail about the relationship between Austen’s novels and the politics of Georgian England, arguing that the powerful individuals in any society need to read good novels like Austen’s in order to gain empathy and understand the live of those who have less power. In particular, Fay focuses on Austen’s novel Emma and its commentary on the division—or lack thereof—between classes.
Midway through their correspondence, Fay abruptly reverses her position on Alice’s novel, telling her that she should try and write it after all. From that point on, she intersperses her analysis of Austen with advice for Alice. She tells Alice to be aware of the challenge of finishing a novel, and how frightening it can be to expose it to the world even once it is finished. Fay refers to the particular difficulty of those close to the writer seeing themselves within the writer’s fiction, as Enid sees herself and Edward in Fay’s work. At one point, she sends Alice a partial draft of a short story on this theme, in which a young novelist named Grace D’Albier finds that publishing a successful novel interferes with all of the close relationships in her life. Fay advises Alice to avoid writing about her own love life as well, simply because it will be boring, although Alice persists in writing about a dramatic series of affairs involving her college boyfriend and a married English professor. Fay also returns to the idea of the City of Invention and to describe critics as bus drivers, urging Alice to take note of them but to pay more attention to the reactions of those who visit the house she builds. However, Fay also tells Alice not to believe everything she says, but rather to pick through the letters and only use what seems helpful to her.
Fay returns to analyzing Jane Austen’s works, in particular Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey. In the latter, Fay explores the contrast between the virtuous main character and her wicked—but witty—nemesis and speculates that the two characters might represent the conflict within Austen herself, who was sweet and dutiful on the outside while hiding her “rebellious spirit.” Fay even wonders if this intense conflict contributed to Austen’s early death, which she finds upsetting to contemplate. Fay tells Alice how Austen died at age 41 of a degenerative condition called Addison’s disease, which could not be treated or even diagnosed at the time. Despite the tragic nature of Austen’s death, Fay urges Alice to consider death as only a part of life, and to let its reality encourage her toward greater accomplishments while she is alive.
In the novel’s final letters, the reader learns that Alice has failed her college exams and is contemplating attending a different school in America, which Fay has offered to pay for. Enid and Edward seem to blame Fay for Alice’s failure. However, Alice is unexpectedly offered a publishing deal for her novel, which delights Fay. Fay encourages her to continue studying literature anyway, so that she can balance her life between analysis and creation. At the novel’s conclusion, Alice’s novel has become a huge success, outselling all of Fay’s novels. Fay is happy for Alice’s success and begins contemplating a new novel of her own, telling Alice that “the exhilaration of all this” makes her think that literature might truly lead to immortality. Finally, Fay announces that she will be attending tea with Enid and Edward, with whom she hopes to have a pleasant time by avoiding discussion of writing and feminism.