The book opens in rural Kentucky, where a woman named Alice has just woken up in the middle of the night, thinking about her married life. At sixty-one, Alice has been married only two years, after having spent most of her adult life alone raising her daughter . Taylor has grown up and lives in Tucson. Alice's husband Harland runs El-Jay's Paint and Body and collects old car junk which is taking over Alice's house and he spends most of his time watching the Home Shopping Channel. Although Alice's outward appearances would suggest the contrary, Alice is lonely and sad in her marriage. Alice regrets that she cannot call Taylor, as it is the middle of the night. Alice feels she needs some proof that she is not the last woman on earth—the "queen of nothing."
Alice walks outside in her nightgown, and feels she could just walk away from her house and her life. Instead, she notices Hester Biddle's pigs rummaging in Alice's garden. She tries throwing things to scare them away, but they stay and she eventually concedes. When dawn breaks, Alice notices a mockingbird on a mulberry tree and then up on the roof. At the end of the chapter, Alice has a daydream about a second cousin of hers, Sugar Marie Boss. Sugar and Alice grew up together. When Sugar moved to Heaven, Oklahoma, she ended up posing for an advertisement in Life Magazine, with a soda pop at her lips and a crown of daisies on her head, leaning against a sign that said, "Welcome to Heaven."
Taylor and her daughter Turtle are on vacation at the Grand Canyon, and have stopped to see the Hoover Dam. When Turtle's taking her mom's picture, Taylor notices a marble slab that commemorates all the men who died building the dam. Next to the monument is a man in a wheelchair who claims he is touring "monuments to the unlucky."
Before they leave, Turtle notices a man go down the side of the dam opposite the water, a round spillway, a hole hundreds of feet down. Turtle does not mention it until she and Taylor are on the highway. Taylor believes Turtle is telling the truth, and they turn around.
After yelling into the hole to no avail, the mother and daughter find a police officer, asleep on duty. He is rude, and does not take Turtle's story seriously, but Taylor's sassy attitude gets them into see the officer's boss, Hugo Alvarez. Taylor goes another round with another doubtful officer.
Finally, the next day, Easter Sunday, Taylor finds a janitor who recognizes her description of Lucky Buster, the man who fell in the hole. On Monday morning a rescue team pulls him out.
Back in Kentucky, Alice is worried she might have seen Taylor and Turtle on the morning news, in a story about someone falling off the Hoover Dam. While she is cleaning her kitchen cupboards, her thoughts wander to her first marriage. Foster Greer could never hold down a job, and never settled down. He never wanted Alice pregnant, and when Taylor came along, Alice traded him in for her new daughter.
When Alice cannot wait any longer, she calls Tucson. Jax, Taylor's boyfriend, answers the phone. Jax has not heard any news from Taylor, but points out that she would never let Turtle fall off anything bigger than a washing machine. Alice likes talking to Jax, and eventually tells him she thinks she will leave her husband. He invites her to come live with them in Tucson. Jax also tells Alice he is worried Taylor does not love him. Alice replies that it is her own fault that Taylor does not give men the benefit of the doubt. Women who make their way alone seem to run in the family.
The novel begins with the sentence, "Women on their own run in Alice's family," and this statement provides an insight into one of the book's most important themes—gender and womanhood. Alice is the mother of the main character of the book, Taylor, and thus the grandmother of Taylor's daughter. This statement anticipates the way Kingsolver will develop these three characters over the course of the novel. More specifically, this statement also anticipates Taylor's introduction to the book. Before her name is even mentioned, we are expecting to meet a strong-willed, independent-minded woman.
The first chapter as a whole establishes the idea of women's space, suggesting a kind of world where women make decisions independent of male influences. Alice thinks of her garden in the morning as a "pitiful, festive" land in which she is queen. Alice's thoughts suggest to the reader that she will find intimacy and community not with another husband, or any man, but with the women in her life. She keeps wishing she could call her daughter, to ward off the feeling that she is the last woman on earth. Interestingly, Alice uses the word "woman" instead of saying the last "person" on earth. Her problem is not merely that she lacks companionship, but that she lacks female companionship specifically. Her daydream about her cousin Sugar again suggests that she feels a sense of bondage with women. She feels that Sugar is still in Heaven, Oklahoma, and that she could easily pick up a correspondence with her. To Alice, women are the ones who keep coming back, whose loyalty is strongest. Both Taylor and Sugar seem to be proof to Alice that she is not alone.
When Taylor enters the novel, she is also introduced in the absence of her significant other. Instead, she is introduced simultaneously with her daughter, suggesting the importance of her identification as a mother. As the chapter goes on, it becomes clear that Turtle is the center of Taylor's life, and that Jax, Taylor's boyfriend, is more or less, just a part of Taylor's life. The reader can connect Alice's thoughts about Taylor to Taylor's thoughts about Turtle. Already in the novel, both women exhibit the ferocity of a mother's love. Kingsolver also hints already that Turtle has not always been so well-protected.
In addition to introducing motherhood as a theme in the novel, this chapter also brings up the idea of luck or chance. The reader should note the way the word "luck" is used in the chapter. When Taylor and Turtle arrive at Hoover Dam, they visit the memorial for WPA men who died building the dam. Another visitor remarks that he is visiting monuments honoring the "unlucky." We should also note that many of these "unlucky" came from the Navajo reservation. The man who falls over the edge of the dam is named "Lucky" Buster, and his name takes on renewed meaning when Turtle sees him fall and she and Taylor pursue his rescue. This luck or fortune motif will be more apparent as the novel progresses.
Chapter Three serves to further develop Alice's character. Whereas in the first chapter, leaving her husband was only a bizarre idea she thought up in the middle of the night, Alice now proves herself a strong-willed woman who is going to find a way out of her marriage. The lonely, defeated voice of the first chapter has turned to one more self-reliant and proactive. One detail that helps produce this change in tone is the fact that Alice picks up the phone and calls her daughter. Now, she can articulate her loneliness to a listening ear, and her decision to leave her husband becomes concrete. The reader should note the irony of the kitchen gadget mentioned at the end of the chapter. Alice's thought that she would use it to make an onion milkshake is a humorous way of subverting the traditional ideas of an ideal wife. Alice is not only leaving Harland, but a lifestyle. She will no longer take the back seat to the T.V. The details of the home shopping channel gives the narrator a chance to show Alice fighting back against her role as a passive housewife.