The plot follows Ruth Cole, who is four years old in the first section of the book. Her mother, grieving over the loss of Ruth's older brothers, begins an affair with a teenager, while Ruth's father, Ted, carries on a number of affairs. The second half of the plot follows Ruth as an adult.
Some tropes found in the novel include:
- Adaptation Distillation: The Film of the Book, released as The Door In The Floor, only featured the first half, and several things were even left out of that.
- Author Appeal : Exeter, sex, squash, and writing.
- Boarding School : Ruth attends Exeter Academy (like the author).
- The Red Stapler : Ted's book, A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound.
- Disposable Sex Worker : Subverted, in that Ruth befriends and researches prostitutes in Amsterdam's red light district. Played distressingly straight when Ruth witnesses the murder of a prostitute.
- Likes Older Women : Eddie. And how! His attraction to women in their sixties (when he's forty-ish) is both charming and hilarious.
- MayDecember Romance
- Most Writers Are Writers: Both Ruth and her father are writers.
- Title Drop : During the Show Within a Show (story within a story). The first line of Ruth's reading is so-and-so had been "a widow for one year."
- Your Cheating Heart : Many of the characters, but Ted Cole in particular.