Lena St. Clair is caught in an unhappy marriage to Harold Livotny. Harold insists that the couple keep separate bank accounts and use a balance sheet to detail their monetary debts to one another. Although he believes that this policy will keep money out of the relationship, it in fact accomplishes the opposite, making money and obligation central to Lena and Harold’s conjugal life. Lena has inherited her mother Ying-ying’s belief in superstition and deems herself incapable of reversing what is “fated” to happen. She fails to take initiative to change her relationship, despite her recognition of its dysfunctional elements.
While still a child, Lena learns an important lesson from her neighbors. She constantly hears the mother and daughter in the adjacent apartment yelling, fighting, and even throwing things. She is shocked by the difference between these noisy confrontations and her own relationship with her mother, which is marked by silences and avoidance of conflict. Yet, when she realizes that the shouting and weeping she hears through the wall in fact express a kind of deep love between mother and daughter, she realizes the importance of expressing one’s feelings, even at the cost of peace and harmony. Although the neighboring family lives a life of conflict and sometimes even chaos, they possess a certainty of their love for each other that Lena feels to be lacking in her own home. Reflecting back on this episode of her life, Lena begins to realize how she might apply the lesson she learned then to her married life with Harold.