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 when the pair are 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.
- 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.
- Even Evil 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.