Iris Chase Griffen, more than eighty years old and suffering from heart problems, begins writing the story of her life for her granddaughter Sabrina, whom she has not seen in years. She tells the story through flashbacks, with scenes from her present life mixed in. The story is not in chronological order.
Iris and her sister, Laura, grow up as the daughters of a wealthy button-factory owner in Port Ticonderoga, Canada. The family home, Avilion, is in decline from its grandest days. Iris’s mother dies in childbirth when Iris is nine years old and Laura is six years old. Reenie Hincks, a family servant, cares for the two girls. Their father’s business has increasing financial problems, which worsen with the Great Depression.
Iris and Laura are now teenagers, and their father’s girlfriend introduces them to Alex Thomas, a young union organizer and socialist activist. Soon after they meet, the factory workers riot, and the factory burns. Alex is suspected of instigating the trouble, and Iris and Laura hide him in their attic from the authorities.
Soon, Iris’s father explains to her that he expects Richard Griffen to propose to her and that he has already given his consent. Griffen, a wealthy industrialist from Toronto, is much older than Iris. Iris’s father says the marriage is the only way to save the family business and ensure that Laura will be provided for. After the wedding, Richard and Iris spend several months in Europe on their honeymoon. By the time they return, Winifred Griffen Prior, Iris’s new sister-in-law, had already decorated and furnished the new home Richard bought by telegram. Iris quickly learns that Winifred controls all of Richard’s household affairs, although she does not live with the couple.
Laura telephones a few minutes after Iris arrives at her new home. She tells Iris that their father had died a week after Iris left on her honeymoon. Laura had sent telegrams, and the news was in the papers. Richard explains that he did not tell Iris about the death because they would not have been able to return to the United States in time for the funeral; he did not want to spoil the trip for her. Iris goes to Avilion the next day and learns that her father died the day after the button factory was permanently closed. Iris feels that Richard betrayed her and her father because the two men had agreed that the marriage would save the factory.
Richard decides that Laura should live with him and Iris in Toronto. Laura, however, does not arrive by train when expected, so Richard informs the police. The papers learn that Laura is missing. Following up on a tip, Richard and Iris find Laura working at a carnival. After they take her to Toronto, Laura continues to resist the plans made for her. She openly dislikes Richard and is expelled from school.
Meanwhile, Iris sees Alex on a street in Toronto. They have an affair, and Iris becomes pregnant. They have a daughter, Aimee, and Iris sees in her Alex’s features—dark hair and dark skin—confirming for Iris that Alex is Aimee’s father. Alex later dies fighting in World War II, and Iris receives the telegram announcing his death because she had been listed as his next-of-kin....
(The entire section is 1303 words.)