The action takes place within ten weeks of Arabella Hicks' fiction writing class in New York City, over the course of which she teaches her students about plot, character, voice, etc. Every week there are in-class and take-home assignments, some of which the students share with each other. The reader feels that he or she is also present in the class learning the writing craft, contemplating the assignments and hearing the discussions.
At the same time, the book is built around Arabella's story. She is a single woman in her late thirties, whose mother is ill and resides in a nursing home. Arabella's relationship with her mother is distant; she visits her mother every Wednesday, which happened to be the day of her writing class this time. As Arabella tells her mother, Vera, about the class, she realizes that Vera herself always wanted to be a writer, and she discusses the exercises with her, wondering what her mother would make of them.
One great thing about the book is the variety of characters, the mysteries unraveled in front of the reader as the class progresses. They have their own joys and tragedies they share as they become more comfortable with the teacher and their classmates. Every one of them has different reasons for taking the fiction class, and many are wondering if they have talent for writing, to which Arabella responds that it is often not the talent but determination that makes a writer.
Of course, the most complex and vivid character is the protagonist, Arabella. She has a few flaws and a few virtues. She has not been a remarkable writer and she has never published a novel. In the beginning of the novel we are wondering if she is qualified to teach the fiction class. Whether or not she is a good daughter is also questionable. At the same time, she is very observant and not judgmental, as every writer should be.
What keeps the reader's attention throughout the book is the variety of themes the author explores. We are dealing not only with writing, but also with family, relationships, romance, calling, as well as life and death. Observing her students, Arabella often makes assumptions about them, which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and we see that people are so multi-dimensional that we can never be sure what to make of them.
And last but not least, the novel is well-composed and rich in descriptions, which again makes the reader feel like a part of the class. There is always a new lesson and a new visit to Vera, which we are anticipating with every page, and there is also Arabella's personal tragedy, her loneliness and helplessness that make her doubt herself from time to time, which makes it hard for a reader to close the book before the last page is read. It is definitely a novel one who is passionate about writing will appreciate.