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I for Isobel | Study Guide

Amy Witting

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I for Isobel | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


A Cruel Mother

On her ninth birthday, Isobel Callaghan's mother tells her she won't be getting a present: the family does not have enough money. This is what Mrs. Callaghan, a shockingly abusive parent, says every year. Nevertheless, Isobel is disappointed. Hoping to cheer herself up, she begins reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and realizes that great books provide a world into which she can escape. From then on, books become her refuge. At lunch that day, a guest at the lake house where the family is vacationing gives Isobel a beautiful brooch. Isobel resolves to wear the brooch from then on.

Isobel is brought up to think of herself as a liar and a sinner. She worries that she's going to hell. For a while she manages to maintain a "state of grace," but it vanishes after intolerable goading by her mother. Isobel relapses into her ordinary state, certain that grace isn't something she can achieve.

Isobel Alone in the World

When Isobel is 18, her mother dies. Secretly overjoyed at her new freedom, she finds an office job translating German mail and moves to a drab boardinghouse. A few people her age live in the boardinghouse, but Isobel has trouble relating to them. Her new job is also a challenge: she has no office skills and is uncomfortable with her coworkers. Everyone around her seems to speak a social code she does not know.

Isobel is intrigued by a group of literarily inclined college students she meets in a coffee shop who introduce her to new books and ideas. When a young man in the group dies, Isobel must break the news to his former girlfriend, who has been stalking him. Her coworkers are so kind to her that she realizes she has misjudged them.

Face-to-Face with Saints

Isobel moves to a new boardinghouse, and the story resumes a few months later. Isobel's new life is not a success. She starts making secret, spiteful anonymous calls to strangers. The morning after a one-night stand with a stranger, she notices in his bookcase a book called Words of the Saints. The book gives her a mysterious feeling of freedom, and she decides to steal it. She knows that in some way, the book links her to her Catholic childhood, and she decides to visit the suburb where she was raised.

Understanding Brings New Beginnings

As she walks through the town, Isobel remembers being too frightened of her mother to believe she had a right to her own thoughts and opinions. Passing her house, she stops by that of a former neighbor, Mrs. Adams. Long ago, the newspaper printed a poem Isobel wrote about Mrs. Adams's cat. Isobel's parents terrified her by saying she might go to jail for libel. She is shocked now when Mrs. Adams says that she loved the poem.

Isobel is overwhelmed at how deeply both her parents tormented her. She realizes that although the experience crippled her self-confidence about writing, she can now choose to become a writer. Whether she succeeds or fails, the path is open to her.

I for Isobel Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Isobel doesn't receive a birthday present.

Rising Action

2 Isobel's mother dies.

3 Isobel becomes friends with a group of college students.

4 Nick is killed in an accident.

5 Isobel realizes she is not an outcast, just a regular human being.

6 Isobel visits her childhood home.


7 Isobel realizes her parents betrayed her when she wrote the newspaper poem.

Falling Action

8 Isobel realizes she's been a writer all along.


9 Isobel buys an exercise book so she can begin writing a story.

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