Kissy Mellors, a beautiful photography student, is driving through her campus one night when two girls leaving a party stagger into the street in front of her. She stops just in time, but as the girls reel away from her, they are struck by the speeding drunk driver behind Kissy, a premed student named James Houston. One girl is killed instantly and the other, Ruth Prashker, enters a coma from which she never recovers.
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Through this horrific accident, Kissy meets the two men who will come to want her--Junior "Hooter" Clootie, a rising hockey star and ex-boyfriend of the dead girl, and Mike Burke, a cop with secret ambitions who arrives at the scene of the smash-up. As Kissy begins an initially sexual affair with Clootie that deepens into love, marriage and family, Clootie's binges, flings and professional life tear them apart, eventually driving Kissy into the arms of Burke, whose ceaseless ambitions ultimately lead them both toward another disaster.
As these primary relationships develop and shift, two constants that remain are Kissy's visits to Ruth, whose frozen life she begins to photograph into an acclaimed series of pictures, and the profound secret she and James Houston share.