Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective show of her art. The return home causes Elaine to reflect on her life, and the novel alternates in time between her current visit home and her past. During Elaine’s early childhood, Elaine’s family travels to different places so her father, an entomologist, can study spruce budworms. When they move to Toronto after Elaine turns eight, she navigates relationships with other girls her age for the first time. Elaine finds life in the Toronto suburbs bewildering because being a girl has too many rules she doesn’t understand. Nevertheless, she makes friends with three other girls: Carol, Grace, and Cordelia. After Elaine’s ninth birthday, Cordelia decides that Elaine needs improvement, and the girls bully Elaine. One day, Cordelia tosses Elaine’s hat into a ravine and orders Elaine to go get it. The ice on the river breaks, filling Elaine’s shoes with freezing water. Back on the bank, Elaine can’t move until a vision of the Virgin Mary tells her she can return home. When she returns to school, she ignores Cordelia’s taunts and finds new friends. Afterward, she blocks the bullying from her memory.
Elaine and Cordelia go on to attend the same high school, but while Elaine thrives, Cordelia struggles. Elaine gets good grades but develops a cruel streak that she turns on other girls. After Cordelia tries to talk to Elaine about their elementary school days, Elaine avoids her altogether. Cordelia eventually switches high schools because she fails too many classes, and the girls lose touch. Elaine decides she wants to become an artist, and after graduation, she takes night classes at an art college while attending university. She eventually begins affairs with both her teacher, Mr. Hrbik, and one of her classmates, a man named Jon. That summer, Cordelia meets up with Elaine while Elaine is on break from her summer job. Cordelia seems better than she’s been in years, excited about an internship that she has with a theater company. Infuriated that Cordelia is living her dream while Elaine has no solid artwork to show for her first year in school, Elaine ends the visit with no desire to reconnect with Cordelia again. They fall back out of touch.
Elaine chooses Jon over Mr. Hrbik. Jon moves into her apartment, and after Elaine gets pregnant, they get married. Both continue painting, but Elaine must paint at night because she works and caretakes during the day. Elaine finds a group of fellow women artists who intimidate her but support her art and showcase it at an exhibition. Although the exhibition receives negative press from the mainstream media, this event launches Elaine’s career. Around this time, Cordelia attempts suicide and begs Elaine to help her escape the rest home her parents send her to. Elaine refuses. Meanwhile, Elaine and Jon’s relationship sours because Jon doesn’t want Elaine to paint. Elaine moves to Vancouver, where she meets her second husband, Ben. Her notoriety from Toronto helps her make connections with the feminists of the Vancouver art world, but she finds these women even more intimidating than the Toronto artists and avoids them. As time passes, Elaine experiences more loss. Hijackers kill Elaine’s older brother, Stephen, en route to a physics convention. When her mother becomes deathly ill, Elaine travels to help her around the house. While cleaning out the cellar, she finds her childhood cat’s eye marble, which unlocks her memories of the ravine incident from elementary school.
In the present, Elaine walks around Toronto while she waits for the start of the retrospective art exhibition. She finds the ways Toronto has changed unnerving, and she traces the old routes she used to walk through the city. Finally, the time for the retrospective arrives. Looking at her old paintings, into which she poured so much of her anger at her childhood friends and the adults who failed her, Elaine realizes that she understands them now. She anticipates Cordelia’s arrival at the exhibition, but Cordelia never comes. Elaine returns home, drunk and disappointed. The next day she returns to the bridge over the ravine she fell into and imagines seeing nine-year-old Cordelia below her. She acknowledges that the fear and loneliness she used to feel were the same emotions Cordelia felt. In her mind, she tells Cordelia she can go home. On the flight home, Elaine sits next to two old women playing cards together in a joyful and carefree manner. Elaine realizes that she misses this experience that she will never have of being old together with Cordelia.