Here's how Dolores Price comes undone:
She grows up in the mid-1950s and early sixties, a time where a woman's place is in the home. Her ma has a miscarriage and doesn't want to be in the home any longer, a home where her husband has affairs and abuses her. They divorce, and Ma has a nervous breakdown, which lands her in a mental hospital.
Dolores goes to live with her grandma, and all the girls in her new school absolutely hate her. Ma gets out of the hospital, and she's all liberated (flirty, bra showing, gets a job). Dolores hates her because (1) she's a teenager, (2) she wants attention, and (3) she's still mad that her dad left.
Eventually, a new tenant moves into Grandma's third-floor apartment: hunky DJ Jack Speight. All three woman fawn over him, but he only has eyes for Dolores… teenage Dolores.
He rapes Dolores, and Dolores feels completely responsible for the whole thing. She tells Roberta, the tattoo artist across the street, and they run Jack out of town. To help Dolores cope with her pain, Ma buys her tons and tons of junk food until Dolores weighs a, well, ton.
Mr. Pucci, Dolores's high school guidance counselor, convinces Ma to get Dolores into college. Dolores fights her every step of the way, until Ma gets run over by a truck at work and dies—then she can't fight her anymore. Dolores decides to go to college and she writes letters to her future roommate, Kippy, about how wonderful and perfect her life is.
Dolores accidentally arrives at college a week early, but the creepy lesbian janitor (not because lesbians or janitors are creepy, but because this particular creepy person is also a lesbian and a janitor)—a.k.a. Dottie—befriends her and lets her stay. When Kippy arrives, she instantly hates Dolores for being fat. Kippy soon upgrades her boyfriend from Dante the long-distance dishrag to Eric the hypersexual drug-abusing frat bro. Dolores steals Dante's letters, including his nudie pics, and keeps them, slowly falling in love with this boy she's never met.
When Eric assaults Dolores at a party, she kicks him and runs away to Dottie, who has sex with her. Dolores, determined to not be a lesbian, kills Dottie's fish and runs away again to Cape Cod for an even bigger fish. Well, a whale. She checks into a motel on Cape Cod and calls her mom's best friend, Geneva. Then Dolores finds a beached whale and beaches herself right beside it. The cops come and find Dolores, who hopes to just die there.
Flash forward seven years: Dolores has been in a mental institution and, thanks to Dr. Shaw's rebirthing techniques, she's rehabilitated. Kind of. She's still weird, and when she finds Dante's address (not Alighieri, but Kippy's high-school boyfriend) she moves in right across the hall from him.
She doesn't tell him that she basically stalked him, and they start a relationship fast. Before you know it, Dolores is pregnant (she lied about being on the pill, too) and Dante wants her to get an abortion. Reluctantly, she does. Then they get married, and it's all downhill as Dante starts cheating and becoming abusive… just like Dolores's father.
Eventually they divorce, Grandma dies, and Dolores moves into her house all by herself. Roberta comes back into the picture, and they become friends, and Dolores goes back to school where she meets a hunky giant named Thayer. After an on-again off-again relationship, they decide to keep it on-again. Thayer takes Dolores on a whale watch, and she gets to see one up close. A live one for a change.