At a 1960s New York drinks party, Constance Schuyler, a young publisher, meets Sidney Klein, a professor of poetry twenty years her senior. Attracted by her fragile beauty – ‘her porcelain limbs and startled eyes and her sudden throaty laughter’ – he woos her with the sort of lines one might expect of a professor rather than a poet: ‘I’m a fascinating thinker and I love you. What’s not to love back?’ They soon marry and she moves into his intimidating apartment, ‘large and dark and full of books’. Theirs is a chilly relationship – they don’t hug; instead, she stands still and allows him to hold her – but Constance soon develops a fondness for Howard, Sidney’s young son from a previous marriage.
Constance is haunted by the death of her mother from cancer, and disturbed by what’s left of her family: a sister who is drinking heavily and falling into dissipation, and a tyrannical father whom she unequivocally hates. At Christmas, she takes Sidney and Howard to visit her childhood home in