The novel begins in western Connectictut, with an unsuccessful first performance by an amateur theater company, The Laurel Players. The lead actress, April Wheeler, begins with a strong performance but eventually becomes embarrassed and stilted once it’s clear that the show is a flop. At the play’s end, her husband, Frank Wheeler, goes to console her, but instead they argue over whether to go out for cocktails with their friends Shep and Milly Campbell. After a screaming match on the side of the highway, Frank punches the roof of the car, injuring his hand. April sleeps on the couch and Frank sits up drinking.
The next day, with a horrible hangover and with April refusing to speak to him, Frank sets himself to work on a stone path he is building in the yard. He struggles with the work as his children, Michael and Jennifer, watch. Frank remembers his own father Earl’s disappointment in his seeming lack of aptitude for this kind of practical labor. Frank mistakes the root of a tree for Michael’s foot carelessly stuck into the hole where he is digging, and Frank then spanks his son, shocking both children.
The next evening, Shep and Milly Campbell come over to the Wheelers’ house for cocktails. The two couples usually enjoy each other’s company, but now there is awkwardness between them. Milly Campbell tells the group some gossip. Helen Givings, the local realtor, has a son John who has been placed in a mental institution. Frank holds forth, denouncing the complacency of their community, which ignores the tragedies in its midst. He expects the group to agree with him and chime in, but they all look embarrassed.
The next day is Frank’s thirtieth birthday. He feels depressed as he goes into work at Knox Business Machines, where he works in Sales Promotion, but feels better once he sets in motion a plan to seduce a secretary named Maureen Grube. When Frank arrives home, he is shocked to receive a warm reception from April. She has prepared a birthday dinner for him and says she has something important to tell him. April has conceived of a plan to move to Europe. There, she says, Frank can figure out his true calling, and she will work as a secretary. She says that she blocked him from finding himself when she got pregnant with Jennifer and wanted to give herself an abortion. According to April, to convince her not to have an abortion, Frank had had to assume total responsibility for their lives, sacrificing his own fulfillment. Now, she wants to make it up to him. Frank initially resists this logic, but eventually agrees that they should carry out April’s plan.
For the next few weeks, the Wheelers are in harmony with one another. The next day at work, Frank tells Maureen they shouldn’t sleep together again. In a whirl of activity, he quickly solves a pressing problem by writing a brochure for a sales conference.
Over the weeks that follow, the Wheelers spend long hours talking about their plans, excluding everyone else, even their children. Frank begins to realize that he is nervous to move to Europe, especially when he sees how quickly April is preparing. She has assumed that they will move to Paris, because Frank gave her the mistaken impression that he learned French during World War II.
One weekend the Wheelers inform Helen Givings and the Campbells of their plan to move. Milly has been worried since the play that the Wheelers have become snobs, but Shep, who has a crush on April, brushes off her concerns. After hearing of the Wheelers’ plans, however, he tells Milly he agrees with her about the Wheelers and thinks that their plan sounds very immature. Milly is relieved, but Shep is left deeply envious that Frank will get to live in Paris with April. The next night, Helen comes over to the Wheelers’ and asks them if they would they be willing to meet her son John. She is mortified to see from their expressions that they have heard about John’s hospitalization, but the Wheelers quickly agree to meet John. When they tell Helen of their plan to move to Paris, she is disappointed because she had hoped that they could become long-term friends for John.
Frank tells his best friend at work, Jack Ordway, about his plan to move. Frank feels a sense of relief from no longer keeping the move entirely a secret. That afternoon, however, he is called over by his boss. Bart Pollock, a senior executive in the company was impressed by the brochure Frank wrote and wants him to do a series of similar brochures. That night, Frank is disappointed when April shows no interest in his meeting with Pollock.
Soon after, the Wheelers get into a fight over how Jennifer is reacting to the upcoming move. When Frank expresses worry about their kids’ ability to adjust, April asks if he is trying to back out of the move. Frank denies this.
The next day is their first visit with John Givings, so April sends Michael and Jennifer to stay with the Campbells. John behaves oddly and makes hostile remarks to his mother, but approves of the Wheelers’ plan to move to Paris to escape the “hopeless emptiness” of suburbia. Despite feeling that they handled the visit well, there is distance and constraint between Frank and April again.
That week, Bart Pollock takes Frank out to a fancy, booze-soaked lunch at a hotel. Frank confides in Pollock, telling him about his father’s history working for Knox. Pollock tells Frank that he would like to hire him to be a part of a new public relations venture he is putting together. Frank tells Pollock that he is leaving the company in the fall, and Pollock replies that if Frank he changes his mind, the offer stands.
Later that week, in a state of despair, April tells Frank that she is pregnant. Frank feels full of relief, thinking that this means they will not have to move to France. Then he finds a rubber syringe in the closet—which he knows April plans to use to abort the pregnancy. He feels he must convince April to have the baby.
For the next few weeks, the Wheelers debate what to do about April’s pregnancy. Frank takes April out to fancy restaurants to demonstrate that their life can be more fulfilling in the suburbs with the extra money he will earn working for Bart Pollock. He also cultivates a new persona, acting the part of a decisive, responsible man. When April still wants to abort the baby, Frank suggests that this desire is the result of a psychological abnormality caused by April’s unhappy, parentless childhood. April relents, agreeing not to have an abortion.
The Wheelers tell their friends that they will not be moving to Paris. Frank is disturbed to admit to himself that, although he is glad not to be moving to Paris, he doesn’t actually want another child. He resumes his affair with Maureen.
One night the Wheelers and Campbells go dancing at a seedy bar called Vito’s Log Cabin. Milly gets too drunk and they all plan to leave, but one of their cars is blocked in. April suggests that Frank drive Milly home while she stays out with Shep. To Shep’s joyful amazement, they have sex in the back of his car.
Several days later, Frank goes to Maureen’s house to break up with her. He is caught off guard when Maureen emerges from her room naked and dancing. Apologizing over and over, Frank breaks things off.
April has been sleeping on the couch since sleeping with Shep. That Sunday, immediately before a visit with the Givings, Frank tries to speak to her about how she is feeling. April declares that she doesn’t love Frank. Frank speaks condescendingly to April, as if addressing a mentally ill person, then says he has also been acting neurotically and tells April he had a brief affair. April says she doesn’t care.
When the Givings arrive, they can tell that April and Frank have been fighting. John asks why they aren’t moving to Paris, and Frank points to April’s pregnant belly as an answer. John says that isn’t the real reason. He guesses that Frank impregnated April because he was too scared to move. Helen apologizes, saying they shouldn’t have come, and the Givingses leave. Afterwards, the Wheelers have an enormous fight and Frank drinks himself to sleep.
In the morning, Frank is surprised when April makes him breakfast and listens to him talk about the conference with Bart Pollock that day and lets him kiss her goodbye. After Frank leaves, April writes a brief note for Frank and prepares to attempt to give herself an abortion. She dies in the hospital that day.
Frank takes Michael and Jennifer to live with his older brother and moves to New York City. Shep dislikes listening to Milly’s dramatic renditions of what happened to the Wheelers, but he appreciates her supportive presence. Helen Givings feels that John played a role in April’s death; she tells his doctors he is too destructive to leave the institution again, and she adopts a puppy.