Set in an unspecified South American country, the story begins at a birthday party thrown at the country's vice presidential home. The party is thrown for Katsumi Hosokawa, the visiting chairman of a large Japanese electronics company called Nansei. Performing is a famous American soprano, Roxane Coss.
Near the end of the party, members of a terrorist organization break into the house looking for the President. When it is discovered that the President did not attend the party, the terrorist group decides to take the entire party hostage.
After determining they have too many hostages, the terrorists decide to release all of the hostages except those they deem most important and most likely to receive a large ransom. This includes Hosokawa, Roxane, and the translator Gen.
Two major romantic relationships develop as the standoff drags on and serve as the backdrop to the rest of the story. The first is between Roxane Coss and Katsumi Hosokawa. Hosokawa is one of Roxane's biggest fans and he attended the party because Roxane was going to be singing. When they are placed in the house together, they develop a deep bond, even though they do not speak each other's language and thus cannot communicate verbally. The second relationship is between Gen Watanabe and the young terrorist Carmen. They must keep their love a secret because Carmen is forbidden to have relationships with a hostage. The two lovers meet in the china closet every night to practice Carmen's reading and eventually to make love.
At the end of the novel, the government breaks into the house and kills all the terrorists. All of the hostages are freed except for Mr. Hosokawa, who dies in the struggle. The novel ends some time after the crisis; we learn that Gen and Roxane were married in Italy.