Set in 1955, the novel focuses on the hopes and aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler, self-assured Connecticut suburbanites who see themselves as very different from their neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. In the opening scene, April stars in an embarrassingly bad amateur dramatic production of The Petrified Forest:

She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.

Seeking to break out of their suburban rut, April convinces Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he realizes his vague ambition to be something other than an office worker. Unfortunately, Frank (from whose point of view most of the novel is told) is a weak reed, doing the minimum to get by at work without developing any alternative self, in contrast with April's taking concrete steps to accomplish their move. When April conceives their third child, their plan to leave America crumbles, not least because Frank is flattered by praise from his supervisors at work and beginning to identify with his mundane job. April realizes that she doesn't know herself any more and that she doesn't love Frank; she tries to abort their child herself, but botches the attempt and dies in her effort to fight the forces keeping her in her suburban housewife lifestyle. Frank grieves, but soon becomes absorbed by the work he had once despised, and "dies" an inward death.

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