Joan Foster is a critically acclaimed poet with a life full of secrets who fakes her own death. Joan Foster is living in a rented room in Italy after faking her death and leaving her husband in Canada. She narrates her life in flashback.
She has been leading a double life, writing romance novels under a pseudonym. She has never told her husband about this, nor about most of her past, particularly that she spent her childhood and teen years overweight.
Born to a strict and disapproving mother, she was a chubby infant and then a fat girl and adolescent, much to her mother's dismay. Her father was out of the picture during her infancy, but he returned from the war when she was five.
She describes the troubles of trying to please her mother, going to ballet classes as a little girl, unaware of the dismay with which her bulk affected her mother. Later going to Brownies and beginning to understand from the other girls how the world viewed her.
After years of her mother trying to force weight loss on her, a battle of wills taking place in which Joan's body was both the battleground and her only weapon against her mother. Perversely getting fatter was a victory for her, demonstrating her mother could not control her.
In high school she learned to become the confidante and non-threatening friend to other girls, in order to safely navigate social situations without becoming the object of teasing or scorn. She modeled some of her behaviors on her Aunt Lou, a stocky woman herself, but with a dash of style. Critically Aunt Lou was single and had her own job writing advice books, rare for a woman in that era. She spends her happiest times with Aunt Lou, including some weird trips to a church that is run by a woman spiritualist who tells her she has a special gift. She recommends Joan try automatic writing. Wanting to believe that she is special Joan tries it but finds it frightening the first time and doesn't do it again.
When Aunt Lou dies she leaves Joan two thousand dollars on the condition that Joan lose a hundred pounds. Joan does so, at first unhappily, feeling it is both a way of escaping her mother but also a capitulation. But her mother's behavior makes her realize that her weight was never actually the central issue. Her mother treats her attempts at weight loss with scorn until they start working, then she shifts to disapproval of her methods and subtle sabotage through cooking and leaving food around.
In the present day Joan has cut her hair to disguise herself, and bought a typewriter to continue writing her romance novels for money to survive.
After a confrontation with her mother, Joan leaves home despite not having her inheritance yet. She travels around Canada looking for a place to live, and takes her aunt's name to avoid her mother finding her. When she finally gets down to the required weight she visits a lawyer and gets the cash. She decides to move to London and start a new life.
But in London she is equally at a loss, traveling around aimlessly until she literally falls into the lap of a Polish count. She is seduced by him, he doesn't realize she is a virgin and thinks she is a worldly art student. She moves in with him and discovers that he writers Nurse Romances for a pulp publisher. Inspired by this she begins writing historical romances herself and finds herself reasonably successful at it. However being his mistress begins to strain, he is suspicious and clearly uninterested in pursuing a more significant relationship. She begins to worry as she knows he has a gun.
While out in London one day she runs into a fellow Canadian handing out anti-nuke pamflets and falls for him. His name is Arthur and she eventually moves in with him, pretending she has been evicted from the flat she has told him she shares with another girl. She reveals none of her past to him, nor about her current lover.
Returning to her shared apartment one afternoon she sees he mother sitting on the couch. Stunned she closes the door in shock, and when she re-opens it the room is empty. A few days later she receives a telegram from her father telling her that her mother has died.
She returns home to Canada with the last of her money, but gets there too late for the funeral. She stays for a while ith her father but finds she has no real connection with him. Without enough money to return home she gets a job in Canada and corresponds with Arthur until he eventually stops writing her back.
Eventually he shows up at her door, it turns out he had moved back to Canada as well and not received her letters. They end up getting married on the cheap to avoid their families and any fuss and Joan is shocked to find that their officiator is the same spiritualist that she used to visit with Aunt Lou, though the woman is working under a different name. She recognizes Joan but keeps her secret, privately she tells her again she has a gift and asks if she ever tried the automatic writing.
Her married life is filled with Arthur's disapproval and his political causes, all their friends are ones he works with at a radical political magazine. Joan continues keeping all her secrets, pretending to take odd jobs to justify her book income. When she hits a writers block on her latest romance novel one day she tries automatic writing again and this time it succeeds. She fills a notebook with fragments and poetry, and decides to send them to a publisher. To her surprise she gets published to rave reviews, hailed as a voice of the women's liberation movement. Arthur seems upset, either by her success of by the suspicion that the poems were about their marriage.
She goes on book tours and falls into a relationship with a performance artist who calls himself the Royal Porcupine. She starts yet another double life, sneaking him into her hotel rooms while on the book tour and pretending to meet him for the first time at parties. Eventually the relationship ends and she becomes afraid of him when shortly after she gets strange phone calls and letters. Most of these turn out to be the work of a man who knows about her past and threatens to blackmail her, but even after she gets rid of him she wonders about some of the phone calls and becomes afraid that Arthur is responsible and has discovered her infidelity. This is when she decides to fake her own death and escape to a new life in Italy.
With the help of two of Arthur's political friends she sets up the plan, she tells them that she is under government surveillance due to their political activities, and they agree to help her. The fake a boating accident, and at first it seems to have been successful.
In the present in Italy she has been vacillating between worry she will be discovered and longing for Arthur, who she now is uncertain was ever a threat. However she becomes paranoid that her Italian landlord has recognized her and is going to blackmail her. Then she receives a letter from Canada, her friends have been accused of her murder, her return is the only thing that can exonerate them.
She is so strained that she assaults a man who knocks at her door, thinking he has been sent to kidnap her, but he turns out to be a reporter who has tracked her down. The book ends with her pondering her return to Canada, but feeling affection for the man, who she clearly sees as a new avenue for escape.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's well written but very meandering and unlikely, Joan's story is supposed to mirror the gothic romances she writes, careening from one peril to the next. But since Joan's perils are mostly imaginary it's hard to care very much after she becomes an adult.
Best scene in story:
When she is in her teens she goes to the movies with her Aunt Lou, the description of them buying huge amounts of candy and popcorn and then bawling to the melodramatic movies is both funny and sad.
Opinion about the main character:
One of the other characters tells Joan that she lacks motive, and that's completely true. Throughout the book she fakes everything from her interior life to her entire biography, plus all the imaginary dangers that give her an excuse to run off to the next thing. But she doesn't have any fun doing it, and isn't moving towards anything, not even misguided passion.