In New York City of the 1930s, Ilana Davita Chandal is the child of a mixed marriage: a Polish Jewish immigrant mother and a Christian father from an old and wealthy New England family. Both of her parents are haunted by bitter and violent memories from their youths, and both have, in consequence, turned their backs on their pasts in order to become active members of the Communist Party. Ilana's early childhood is fraught with mystery and struggle as the neighbors eye the Chandal family with suspicion. When Michael Chandal, already wounded once in the Spanish Civil War, returns to Spain, Ilana begins to look for answers at the local synagogue and in friendship with observant Jews, including her neighbor Ruthie Helfman and her distant cousin, David Dinn. Michael Chandal is killed in Spain, at Guernica, and Ilana and her mother both struggle to cope with their grief. They are often at odds with each other as Ilana becomes more and more interested in traditional Judaism—even asserting her right to say kaddish for her non-Jewish father—while Anne Chandal devotes herself to the Party and becomes involved in a new relationship with a young Communist historian, Charles Carter. When Stalin signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Anne struggles with reconciling the communist cause with the geopolitical reality and leaves the Party.Soon after Carter breaks off their engagement. Ultimately Anne returns—though not with her daughter's fervor—to religious observance and marries her cousin Ezra Dinn, whom she had rejected many years before. Ilana becomes a star student at her Jewish day school. She is devastated when she is unjustly denied an academic award on account of her gender, but she remains determined to make her mark on the world.
A subplot involves the mystical European Jewish writer Jakob Daw, another former suitor of Anne Chandal. He is deported from the United States against his will— in spite of the best efforts of his lawyer, Ezra Dinn—and dies in Europe soon afterwards. Anne Chandal, now Dinn, unconventionally decides to say kaddish for her old friend, even though she is a woman and women did not say kaddish in Orthodox synagogues in the 1940s.