The protagonist and narrator of the novel, a painter returning to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. At nine years old, Elaine suffers cruel bullying from her friends, leaving her angry, emotionally stunted, and distrustful of other women. Elaine uses her art to enact revenge on those who hurt her and to make sense of her past. As Elaine examines her past with more clarity, she begins to find compassion for other women.
Elaine’s best friend and childhood bully. Cordelia’s melodramatic tendencies make her mysterious and magnetic to Elaine and her friends, and she becomes the leader of their games. However, Cordelia is the black sheep of her family, never tidy or high-achieving enough. She expresses her pain by replicating the treatment she receives at home on Elaine. As she gets older, Cordelia becomes less and less able to cope with the world. She continually fails out of school, has no luck dating, and eventually attempts suicide.
Read an in-depth analysis of Cordelia.
Elaine’s older brother, a brilliant physicist. Stephen appears to believe himself free from the rules and norms of society, ignoring “no trespassing” signs and usually wearing ripped clothing. His blithe disregard for danger cannot protect him, however, when hijackers kill him on his way to a convention.
Grace’s mother, a deeply religious woman. She becomes frustrated that despite Elaine’s regular church attendance, Elaine never brings her brother or parents. She disapproves of Elaine’s family’s lifestyle and believes Elaine deserves the treatment from the other girls because of it. Elaine never forgives Mrs. Smeath and makes a series of paintings depicting her in a vengeful fashion.
Elaine’s childhood friend, a naïve and weak-willed girl. Cordelia considers making Carol the target of the group’s bullying, but her quickness to cry spoils the girls’ fun. She eventually settles into a role of spy for Cordelia and Grace, less out of malice and more from her own desire to conform to the whims of the stronger personalities.
Elaine’s childhood friend, a practical and controlling girl. Before Cordelia moved to the neighborhood, Grace acted as the leader of the friend group, choosing which games to play and opting out if the other girls dissented. Grace is obsessed with the idea of being an adult woman and all the material objects that come with suburban life.
An intelligent, stoic, individualistic woman. Elaine believes her mother’s lack of care for others’ opinions renders her powerless to help Elaine. Like Elaine, her mother doesn’t fit in with suburban ideas of femininity. She finds housework a chore and prefers time spent outdoors in the garden. Accordingly, she prefers not to teach Elaine about doing housework and would rather the children be out of the house than helping her.
An entomologist and field researcher. A deeply pessimistic man, he often predicts society’s doom because of greed and meddling too much with the natural world. Although he decries society’s ills, he never takes action to change them.
Carol’s mother, an archetypical suburban housewife. The novel implies that she has created perfect order in the Campbell household.
Carol’s father. He appears to be a nice man, who calls Elaine and the others by fond nicknames. However, he possesses an authoritarian streak, whipping Carol when she wears lipstick.
Grace’s father. He possesses a slightly irreverent sense of humor and a childlike wonder for trains.
Grace’s aunt, a staunch Christian and former missionary with little empathy. She is convinced that Elaine’s purely secular upbringing has rendered her an unsalvageable heathen and encourages Mrs. Smeath to give up on Elaine.
Cordelia’s eldest sister, a charming and artistic girl. For most of the novel, little differentiates her from Mirrie—both have an air of sophistication and worldliness that awe Elaine. However, Perdie is more outspoken than Mirrie, occasionally critical and insolent, even in her father’s presence.
Cordelia’s middle sister. For most of the novel, little differentiates her from Perdie; both have an air of sophistication and worldliness that awe Elaine. She speaks less than Perdie, and often tries to disguise her criticism with sweetness.
A wealthy man implied to have a cruel streak. Although he rarely appears in the novel, his presence changes the tone of Cordelia’s household, forcing the women to cater to his desire for a perfect, orderly home. He has a particular disdain for Cordelia.
A wealthy suburban housewife who appears fragile. Cordelia and her sisters often hide things from her to avoid disappointing her.
Elaine’s father’s graduate student and colleague, a nervous Indian man. Elaine’s family often invites him to events and parties so that he feels welcome, but he always appears uncomfortable and withdrawn. Elaine believes she relates to his alienation and draws strength from his ability to weather awkward situations.
Elaine’s fifth grade teacher, a kindly and compassionate Scottish woman. Unlike Miss Lumley’s tendency to whip, Miss Stuart criticizes students’ behavior by telling them they can do better.
Elaine’s neighbor, a fashionable Jewish woman. She is always kind and generous to Elaine, paying her to do chores and giving her fashion advice. She fusses over Elaine’s looks in a concerned, motherly fashion.
Elaine’s first husband, a painter and sculptor. He is childish and selfish, expecting Elaine to take on the role of housekeeper in his life, particularly after they have a child. Jon lacks creativity, imitating current artistic trends instead of carving out his own niche.
Elaine’s life drawing teacher, a Hungarian refugee in his thirties. Mr. Hrbik uses his sad past and mentor role to take advantage of the young women in the class. Elaine later observes that he doesn’t actually see women as people.
Elaine’s second husband, a practical man and travel agent by trade. Elaine appreciates his chivalry, and he helps care for and protect Elaine. However, he’s disinterested in Elaine’s art, not attending her retrospective and even encouraging her to skip it.
A feminist artist in Toronto who organizes a gallery show to display women’s artwork. Jody is audacious and shameless, transforming the negative press the show receives into advertisements.
Elaine’s classmate in life drawing, a girl from a wealthy family who has an affair with Mr. Hrbik. Although Elaine initially assumes Susie to be a coldhearted and conniving siren, the novel reveals that she is vulnerable and in over her head.
One of Elaine’s classmates in life drawing, a middle-aged portrait artist. Although their classmates don’t take them seriously, she and Marjorie band together, gossiping irreverently, which makes Elaine uncomfortable.
One of Elaine’s classmates in life drawing, a middle-aged portrait artist. Although their classmates don’t take them seriously, she and Babs band together, gossiping irreverently, which makes Elaine uncomfortable.
The organizer of the retrospective at Sub-Versions gallery. Although Elaine distrusts her kindness, she appears to be genuinely excited about Elaine’s retrospective and works hard to ensure its success.
A journalist who interviews Elaine. She asks Elaine about her work and feminism, which Elaine resents. Elaine believes Andrea is judging her and attempting to pigeonhole her work.
Elaine’s fourth grade teacher, a strict disciplinarian. Miss Lumley admires Britain and the British empire. She values symmetry and tidiness over creativity and whips students as a form of discipline.
Elaine’s older daughter. Elaine describes both her daughters as stronger and more self-assured than she ever was.
Elaine’s younger daughter. Elaine describes both her daughters as stronger and more self-assured than she ever was.