Intelligent and talented, Esther resists the pressure to conform to the traditional model of what a young woman should be: chaste, docile, and obsessed with finding a husband who will provide her with children and financial security.
Through extensive flashbacks, Esther reviews her life leading up to the summer of her nineteenth year. Even though on the outside she appears to be leading the perfect life, with a string of academic successes and a boyfriend who seems to be ideal husband material, on the inside she feels that everything in her life is a sham. The revelation that her boyfriend had an affair over the previous summer makes her skeptical of the prevailing sexual double standard that expects men to be sexually active and women chaste. And her academic successes feel empty because she has no idea what to do with herself after college.
In the summer before her senior year, Esther seems to have everything that a young woman would want.
Despite her cynicism, Esther is prepared to enjoy her magazine internship in New York City. She relishes the free restaurant dinners and gifts. Eager for experience, she sometimes ditches magazine events to go out on the town with her friend Doreen and on blind dates with mysterious UN translators.
As the summer goes on, Esther grows increasingly depressed.
Yet even though she's supposed to be having the time of her life, Esther can't help feeling despondent. Her obsession with the Rosenbergs' execution is only the first in a long list of morbid musings, and her summer internship ends with a disastrous blind date where she has to defend herself against a sexual assault.
Esther's return home only aggravates her depression, and she attempts suicide.
Rejected from a summer writing program, Esther's sense of self-worth is at an all-time low. It doesn't help that she's living with her mother, who subtly suggests that Esther's literary efforts are all for nothing as Esther will probably end up as a wife and a secretary. After a few half-hearted attempts at suicide, Esther decides to go through with it and swallows a bottle of pills.
After undergoing treatment at a psychiatric institution, Esther prepares to re-enter the world at large.
With a sympathetic psychiatrist directing her treatment, Esther feels the cloud of her depression lift. Esther emerges at the end of the novel feeling reborn, as if she's gotten a new lease on life.