The book is a fictionalised autobiographical account of Audoux's early life up until she leaves Sologne for Paris to begin an unknown new life, at the age of eighteen, with hardly any money.
The novel is in three parts, the first of which concerns the author's life up to the age of thirteen. Her mother died when she was a young child, and her father abandoned her and her sister. She was sent to a nearby religious boarding school-cum-orphanage attached to the (unmentioned by name) Hôpital général in Bourges. There, the narrator is fortunate enough to meet Sister Marie-Aimée, who, however, is obviously distressed to learn that the Mother Superior has assigned the narrator to a family on a farm, expecting this sensitive, bookish adolescent to learn farming skills.
Needless to say this is a disaster, although not a total one. The narrator hates the work at first and just wants to escape back to Sister Marie-Aimée, although as time progresses the farming tenants Sylvain and Pauline become more humanised. The narrator is a shepherd and has to learn the art very painfully, although she is not psychologically equipped to withstand the slaughter of animals that is going on around her, and lusts after any reading material she can find. Fortunately, the farmer's brother Eugène is of a different mould altogether, has sensitivity towards animals and reads a great deal: the narrator has found a kindred spirit, another sensitive being, someone with intellectual aspirations, and there are perhaps romantic prospects? Alas, Sylvain, Pauline and Eugène are forced to give up the tenancy.
And so to the third and final part, in which the new owners, the Alphonses, are far worse than the previous farmers, and the man never speaks directly to the narrator, and the woman – gloriously called 'la bourgeoise du château' by the labourers – is only interested in textiles, embroidery, that kind of thing. Again, it's fortunate that Henri Delois, the brother of La bourgeoise – is around: this time, it really does look like love. But then, the narrator is forced to insult the new farmer, Henri is forced to say they are no longer friends, and the (now) eighteen-year-old flees back to the orphanage. Where Sister Marie-Aimée is no longer a nun, where she learns of Henri's marriage, and although the narrator is for a brief spell engaged as a worker in the kitchen, she soon has to leave.
Marguerite Audoux didn't write a great number of books, but this is certainly not the last one of hers that I shall read.