Set in 1955, the novel focuses on the hopes and aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler, self-assured Connecticut suburbanites who see themselves as very different from their neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. In the opening scene, April stars in an embarrassingly bad amateur dramatic production of The Petrified Forest:
She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.
After the performance, Frank and April have a fight on the side of the highway, and Frank later begins an affair with his office colleague Maureen.
Seeking to break out of their suburban rut (and consequently blaming herself for all of Frank's "problems"), April convinces Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he realizes his vague ambition to be something other than an office worker. The promise of France brings the two together in love and excitement again, and Frank seemingly ends his relationship with Maureen. While April sees the emigration as an opportunity to escape their dull environment, Frank's plans are more driven by vanity of his own intelligence, which April panders to. When the dull and prim neighbor Mrs. Givings begins bringing her "insane" son John around to the Wheelers' house for regular lunches, John's honest and erratic condemnation of his mother's suburban lifestyle strikes a chord with the Wheelers, particularly Frank.
Their plans to leave the United States begin to crumble when April conceives their third child, and Frank begins to identify with his mundane job when the prospect of a promotion arises. After arguing over the possibility of aborting the child, Frank tries to manipulate April into seeking psychiatric help for her troubled childhood. April, overwhelmed by the outcome of the situation, suffers something of an identity crisis and sleeps with her neighbor Shep Campbell, while Frank resurrects his relationship with Maureen. April attempts to self-abort her child, and in doing so is rushed to the hospital and dies from blood loss. Frank, scarred by the ordeal and feeling deep guilt over the outcome, is left a hollow shell of a man.