Summer 1991. Joseph March, a 21-year-old working-class kid from Seattle, is on top of the world. He has just graduated college and his future beckons, unencumbered and magnificent. But Joe's life implodes when he starts to suffer the symptoms of severe bipolar disorder and, shortly after, his mother kills a man she's never met with a hammer. Joe moves to White Pine, Oregon, where his mother is in jail and his father has set up house to be near her. He is joined by Tess Wolff, a fiercely independent woman with whom he has fallen passionately in love.
On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.
Unbeknownst to his adoring pupils, William Silver, a talented and charismatic young teacher, proves incapable of living up to the ideals he encourages in others. Emotionally scarred by failures in his personal life and driven to distraction by the overpowering carnality and beauty of Paris, Silver succumbs to a temptation that will change the course of his life. His fall will render him a criminal in the eyes of some and all too human in the eyes of others.
"Who is the teacher and who are the students?"