Rabo Karabekian narrates the events of his life in an autobiography at the suggestion of his new acquaintance, Circe Berman. Through writing his autobiography, Rabo journeys into the past to explore questions about art, creativity, loneliness, trauma, and gender politics. It also serves as a diary in which Rabo records his life in the present day, including his interactions with his houseguests Circe Berman and Paul Slazinger. Rabo is lonely for much of his life and suffers many losses. He longs for an extended family but struggles to find one. Two of his closest friends and his wife, Edith, die. In addition, he has had problems with his artwork. He feels that it is technically proficient but lacks soul. To make matters worse, his entire body of work disintegrates due to the faulty chemicals in the paint he used. The novel serves as a roadmap of Rabo's journey to create an artwork with soul, one that goes beyond pure technique to include human emotion. After opting not to paint for several years, Rabo tries again, creating a true masterpiece. He hides it from view in a potato barn but eventually shares it with Circe. The painting incorporates a significant event he witnessed during World War II, but also includes people and experiences that have shaped his life. By creating such a work, Rabo brings his life, his art, and his need for community together and finally makes peace with himself.
Circe Berman is a confident, brash woman. Newly widowed, she goes to the Hamptons to research and write the next book in her successful series of novels for adolescents written under the pen name Polly Madison. Circe represents popular art considered in bad taste. She detests Rabo's collection of abstract art because she thinks they don't mean anything or help her gain information about the world. Circe prefers to collect Victorian color prints, or chromos, of little girls on swings. Circe is a nosy, bossy person, although much of her brash manner conceals the fact that she is grieving. She takes credit for bringing Rabo back to life by encouraging him to write his autobiography and challenging his assumptions about good art versus bad art. When Rabo finally lets her see what is inside the potato barn, she helps him understand how important his accomplishment is so he can find peace.
Dan Gregory is an Armenian from Russia who rose from a brutal, poverty-stricken background to the position of America's best-known and highest-paid illustrator. His paintings depict the world with absolute photographic realism, and he trains his apprentice Rabo in the same style. Gregory admires Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and mirrors him by controlling the lives of everyone around him and abusing them. He beats his young mistress, Marilee Kemp, and mistreats Rabo. Appropriately, Gregory dies wearing an Italian uniform while painting the Italian soldiers in action after visiting Mussolini. Gregory's artwork is commercially successful but lacks true creativity. Even so, Rabo admits that Gregory can at least do one thing in his art that Rabo cannot: convey a sense of his personality.
Terry Kitchen is raised in a well-to-do family, and everything comes easily to him, except painting. However, painting is the only career he wishes to pursue despite the fact that his family refuses to support him. Kitchen finds his own style as a painter when Rabo introduces him to what becomes his tool of choice, a paint sprayer. Kitchen forms a friendship with Rabo and Jackson Pollock, who label themselves "The Three Musketeers." Kitchen believes in "non-epiphanies," moments, as he tells Rabo, when God loosens his control of humans and they can be themselves completely. Kitchen, an alcoholic, shoots himself when he realizes that, while drunk, he shot his own father accidentally. In many ways, Kitchen serves as an alternative version of Rabo, with a more tragic outcome.
Marilee Kemp is abused by men all of her early life but manages to survive and thrive when she outlives them all. She poses as Dan Gregory's assistant in order to help Rabo, but she is actually Gregory's mistress. She and Rabo develop a friendship and even make love, but Marilee rejects taking the romance further. She follows Gregory to Italy where she becomes a celebrity. After his death, she marries Count Portomaggiore, inheriting his property at his death. Marilee uses her position to help women who have been hurt in the war and to become a businesswoman and art collector. She feels that men have dominated the world long enough, bringing violence and destruction in their wake, and that it is time for them to step aside and let women take control.