Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel's parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, Gamaliel survives the war. But in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting from Ilonka. Gamaliel tries, unsuccessfully, to find a place for himself in Europe. After a failed marriage, he moves to New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually he falls in with a group of exiles, including a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel's feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.