Flora Jackson is a teen-ager and aspiring painter imprisoned in the stultifying world of Suburban California in the 1960s. Her father maintains a perfectly manicured lawn but beats his children and intimidates his wife. This unbelievably misanthropic character also forbids his daughter to have intercourse--metaphorical or otherwise with the smoldering young mystic and painter Matthew, who has just moved in across the street. But Mr. Jackson only fuels this teen-age romance by forbidding it. Flora reads aloud from "Romeo and Juliet," dreams erotic dreams, spends her waking hours scheming possible rendezvous, and works herself into a high romantic heat.
Flora's repressive home life is mirrored at her school, where with the exception of one sympathetic art teacher, the institution's raison d'etre appears to be to repress whatever human qualities have not yet been pulverized at home. Matthew and Flora find refuge in their beloved art class and in an off-limits storage room, where they undress and do what unsupervised teen-agers do. After about 300 pages detailing the trials and erotic exploits of the pair, the reader learns with some chagrin that the entire romance has taken place in Flora's head.
Presumably, this revelation illustrates something about imagination triumphing over adversity, but sadly, young Flora's imagination is not the wondrous thing it ought to be and cannot gracefully sustain such scrutiny. "My love for you burns hotter than the worst anger, and softer than candlelight," Flora writes Matthew, after wishing that "she could take Matthew's hand and run with him through open fields." In a novel that expressly tackles "Art" and the "Imagination," this kind of stale and florid imagery is particularly hard to overlook. Flora's fantasies, like her paintings, are busy with feathers and fans, and the chapter headings sport such names as "Tattered Clouds," "The Clay Ballerina" and "Jasmine Tea." It is as if pop singer Stevie Nicks had been cast as the lead in the female version of the Sorrows of Young Werther.