After growing up in the little town of Hanratty, Ontario, Rose wins a scholarship to a prestigious Canadian university. During her first semester there, she finds a comfortable place to live, a part-time job, and a male admirer. She meets Patrick at the campus library when she is working a weekend shift, reshelving books, and he is one of the few people studying there. When she asks him if he has seen a man who has just grabbed her in the almost deserted building, he rushes to her defense. Rose can tell at once that he is both high-minded and high-strung—a nervous man who wants to become a history professor. She also soon sees that he is infatuated with her. She does not know, however, that he is the heir to a family business. She dates Patrick partly to spite her landlady, a spinster former English professor who encourages her “scholars” to stay away from “boys.” To Rose’s surprise, the landlady likes Patrick and tells her that he is one of the most eligible bachelors on campus.
During the Christmas holidays, Patrick takes Rose to visit his family’s luxurious home in British Columbia. Rose feels completely out of place among Patrick’s parents and sisters, but so does Patrick. After returning to the university, they become engaged, and Rose takes Patrick to meet her family in Hanratty, where Patrick is taken aback by the working-class culture and the country accents. Rose increasingly wonders what Patrick sees in her or wants from her. Nevertheless, she finds herself saying all the right things to people who ask to see her engagement ring and ask about her wedding plans. As year-end exams approach, she breaks off her relationship with Patrick but relents when she meets him to return his ring.
They marry and have children but continue their pattern of separation and reconciliation, with subtle variations, for a decade. Eventually, they divorce. Another decade later, when Rose is a successful television interviewer and Patrick is a successful professor, they see each other in an airport. Rose smiles, realizing that she could throw herself at Patrick again but knowing better. He makes an ugly face. What remains of their relationship is this story, which she tells to many friends and lovers in the new age of honesty.