In 1914, two young mothers abandon their children at an orphanage in Montreal. These children, Pierrot and Rose, grow up together and form an irrepressible bond despite the abuse of the nuns caring for them. Before long, their respective talents come to light: Pierrot is a piano prodigy, while Rose is an incredible performer. For a time, the pair of them travel around the city entertaining the wealthy in order to raise money for the orphanage, but as teenagers they are abruptly separated, and the looming threat of the Great Depression drives a further wedge between them. Despite the entire world seemingly conspiring to keep the two apart, however, Pierrot and Rose are determined to find each other again and make their childhood dreams of running the world's most spectacular circus show a reality.
This book provides examples of:
- Bittersweet Ending: Pierrot and Rose never reconcile after their last fight, and Pierrot dies alone in New York City of a drug overdose. Rose achieves wealth and fame in Montreal, but is heartbroken at the news of Pierrot's death. In the final chapter, Eloise comes to visit Rose and brings along Isaac, Pierrot's illegitimate son; Rose immediately adopts the boy, and also has Eloise killed as revenge for what she did to her and Pierrot.
- Child by Rape: Pierrot was conceived when his mother was molested by her older cousin.
- Childhood Friend Romance: Pierrot and Rose eventually deconstruct it. They grow up together, but spend several years apart going through separate traumas; by the time they reunite, they are both different people. While their love for each other keeps things going for a long time, their differences eventually catch up to them. Rose plots to murder Mc Mahon and take over the theater scene, while Pierrot wants to go back to a life away from crime and is horrified at what Rose is willing to do. He ends up walking away and they never reconcile.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: If any of the children at the orphanage are caught masturbating, they are punished by being made to stand on a chair while wearing red gloves so that everyone knows what they've done. A boy earns the punishment every few weeks, and Rose ends up gaining the dubious honor of being the first girl to receive it.
- Dead Guy Junior: Isaac.
- Defiled Forever: Pierrot feels this way about himself due to Eloise's abuse of him.
- Everyone Has Standards: The Mother Superior is far from the nicest character in the novel, but even she eventually realizes that Eloise's abuse of Rose has gone too far; in fact, part of her motivation for sending Rose to work for the Mc Mahons is to ensure Rose's safety.
- Poppy, when Pierrot's last words in the face of assumed death are to beg her to deliver a love message to Rose. Although Poppy has been nothing short of addicted to Pierrot up until this moment, upon hearing this she immediately walks away and never sees Pierrot again.
- Foreshadowing: "I will kill her for you one day." It doesn't happen until the very last page, but Rose makes good on her promise to Pierrot.
- Happily Adopted: Rose adopts Isaac at the end of the novel.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Pierrot and Rose. There's also Isaac, until Rose adopts him.
- Karma Houdini: Subverted in the end. After Eloise drops Isaac off with Rose in the final chapter, Rose has her shot.
- Law of Inverse Fertility: Rose has three miscarriages over the course of the novel.
- Missed Him by That Much: A few times in the middle of the novel, partly due to unfortunate coincidence and partly because Poppy has realized Pierrot's connection to Rose and is trying to keep them apart. Thankfully it still doesn't take them too long to meet once they start actively searching for each other.
- The Mistress: Rose manages to get herself out of being a nanny by becoming Mc Mahon's mistress, but over time this makes her miserable, and she eventually runs away from him.
- Orphanage of Fear: The orphanage where Pierrot and Rose grow up is not a happy place to live, to say the least. The caretaking nuns are abusive, Eloise in particular, and once the Great Depression hits the orphanage is overrun with so many children that they can hardly afford to care for all of them.
- Parental Abandonment: How all the children at the orphanage got there. In particular, Pierrot and Rose are both left at the orphanage shortly after birth. Isaac is left there after his mother, Poppy, dies from illness, while Pierrot dies without ever knowing he had a son.
- The Tragic Rose: Rose, whose first days of life involve being left in the snow to die and then being placed in an orphanage. Ironically, her nickname comes from the warm rosiness of her cheeks.