It’s Montreal, 1953, and eight-year-old Ellen and her mother have moved into a large house. To make ends meet, Ellen’s mother takes in a group of refugees from Central Europe, whose erratic behaviour and dark view of human nature captivate the young girl’s imagination. Ellen sees the refugees as a potential source of information about her own background, of which she has heard little, except for a few stories about a lost golden civilization and the family’s distant connection to Sigmund Freud. The refugees soon leave to be replaced by Aunt Celia, a woman whose anxiety meter is permanently stuck at danger, and Ellen’s new stepfather, Dr. Henryk Steiner. While the adults wrangle with each other and the fallout from their past lives, Ellen sets her sights on exploring the brave new world of “America,” and on becoming a teenage femme fatale. Her quest takes her to Crescent Bay, Long Island, and into the placid lives of her American cousins and their friends. Supporting her along the way is her best friend Lydia, a fellow rebel whose mother, Magda, sets off a series of events that will alter the course of the two girls’ lives.