The novel is about Roger Lambert, a theology professor in his fifties, whose rather complacent faith is challenged by Dale, an evangelical graduate student who believes he can prove that God exists with computer science. Roger becomes obsessed with the thought that Dale is having an affair with his wife, Esther, although it remains ambiguous whether this affair takes place. Roger himself becomes involved with his niece Verna, a coarse but lively nineteen-year-old and single parent whose own mother (Roger's half sister) had a sexual hold over him when they were in their teens. Verna, frustrated by her poverty and limited opportunities, becomes increasingly abusive towards her one and a half year old, mixed-race daughter, Paula. Roger, out of sympathy for her situation and his increasing sexual attraction for her, begins to tutor Verna so she can earn her high school equivalency. One evening, when Paula refuses to go to sleep, Verna shoves and hits her; Paula falls and breaks her leg. Roger, after helping Verna disguise the assault as a playground accident from the hospital staff, has sex with her. Dale, meanwhile, grows depressed and disillusioned when his computer data does not seem to point to the existence of God. The novel ends with Verna leaving Boston to return to her parents in Cleveland and Roger and Esther receiving temporary custody of Paula.
There are frequent popular culture references throughout the novel, particularly to the popular music singer Cyndi Lauper who is much admired by Verna and Richie, Roger and Esther's twelve-year-old son.
The novel's structure, characters and themes are based somewhat on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with Roger Lambert representing Roger Chillingworth, his wife Esther Hester Prynne, Dale Arthur Dimmesdale and Paula Hester's illegitimate daughter Pearl.
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