At the novel’s start we are told “the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide”. This is sixteen-year-old Mary, the second eldest daughter of Mr. Lisbon, a teacher at their Catholic private school, and Mrs. Lisbon, a homemaker. The others are Cecilia (thirteen), Lux (fourteen), Bonnie (fifteen) and Therese (seventeen). The story is narrated in the unusual collective ‘we’ by middle-aged men who were boys in the suburban neighbourhood (Grosse Pointe, Michigan) the Lisbon sisters resided in during the early 1970s. The boys have collected a wealth of relics belonging to the Lisbons, the purpose of which is unknown, and have as adults also interviewed people involved in the sisters’ brief lives.
From Mary’s suicide, the narrative turns back to Cecilia first suicide attempt. She slits her wrists in the bath and is discovered by Paul Baldino, a boy who snuck in because he wanted to watch the girls showering. The psychiatrist recommends Cecilia would benefit from interaction with boys in a social setting. At a party held at the Lisbon house two weeks after Cecilia returns from hospital, Cecilia asks to be excused. She soon falls from her bedroom window onto railings. Cecilia dies from her injuries.
The local adults resolve to remove the fence Cecilia was impaled upon, condemning it as an “accident waiting to happen”. The boys do not see the girls as a group until school resumes, apparently behaving as if nothing had happened. This is in contrast with the media response, suicide pamphlets sent out by the Chamber of Commerce and the Day of Grieving organised by the school.
The boys relate the brief liasions between other boys in their school and Lux Lisbon. Trip Fontaine, a magnet for girls, later tells them he had “never gotten over that girl”. Trip invites himself to the Lisbon house with the intention of asking Lux out, but leaves disappointed. Lux rushes out to Trip’s car for an intense embrace, which encourages Trip to ask Mr. Lisbon if he can take Lux to the Homecoming dance. Mr. Lisbon eventually agrees on the condition that all the sisters go together and with a curfew.
Trip selects boys to accompany him and the girls appear to enjoy themselves. However, at the end of the evening Lux and Trip are nowhere to be found. Trip reveals that they made love on the football field .After Lux arrives home alone, Mrs. Lisbon instigates a lock-down. The girls are taken out of school, and Lux is forced to burn her rock collection, which she responds to by frequently making love on the roof of their house. Lux is taken in an ambulance to hospital under the pretence of a burst appendix, where she has a pregnancy test that comes back negative. The Lisbons’ disconnection from the world is cemented by Mr. Lisbon’s resignation from the school.
In Spring the girls come out of their house to prevent Cecilia’s favourite tree from being cut down. The girls begin to make indirect contact with the boys. In June the girls send a message on the back of a laminated Virgin card that instructs the boys to wait for their signal at midnight the next day.The following night, Lux says she will wait for her sisters in the car while the boys fantasise about their getaway. The boys enter the basement to discover Bonnie’s body hanging from the ceiling. They realise Bonnie probably died while they were in the living room, Mary put her head in the oven soon after and Therese, who had taken sleeping pills, was probably already dead before their arrival. Lux is found gassed in the car.
Mary survives, but takes a fatal overdose the night the boys attend a debutante party. In the aftermath of the deaths, there is a media frenzy and Mr. Lisbon and Mrs. Lisbon sell their home. The boys realise they will be haunted by the girls they had felt tantalisingly close to but failed to truly understand.