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Ingrid is a poet who falls in love with a man named Barry Kolker. However he is not loyal to her and sees other women. Ingrid kills him by going to Mexico and buying a drug. She then smears it over all of the surfaces. Barry touches these surfaces, the poison gets in his body, and he dies. She goes to jail and is later found guilty for killing him and goes to prison for a long time. Her daughter, Astrid, is taken to a series of foster homes.
Her first foster home is a woman named Starr, who has a two children, a teenager named Carolee and a young boy named David. During this home, she falls in love with Starr's husband. She later has an affair by sleeping with him. During a fight, Carolee runs away from home. An angry Starr shoots Astrid in the arm after an argument with her husband.
Her second home is with a woman named Amelia. Amelia has many girls at her house. She has them only to get money (she calls it "easy money") and only feeds them at dinnertime, locking the fridge during the rest of the day. All the girls are hungry all of the time. She eventually gets out of it by talking to a foster worker.
For a brief time, she is put in a place called "Mac," which houses hundreds of children. During this time, she gets into a fight with a bunch of other girls. She cuts her hair off and threatens the other girls, saying that she will slit their throats in their sleep if they attack her again. She also meets a boy named Paul Trout here, who she likes a lot.
Her third foster home is with a woman named Claire Richards. She is very lonely since her husband Ron is always out on business trips. Astrid likes her a lot and how she always is nice and happy towards her. When Claire and Astrid visit Ingrid, however, Ingrid tells Claire that Ron is cheating on her. Astrid warns her mother not to destroy this home, but Ingrid smiles and says that she would rather have her at the worst foster home ever over Claire. Afterwards, Claire fights with Mark and later kills herself by taking a lot of pills at.
Astrid is put in a fourth home. She is very upset and thinks that her mom caused Claire to kill herself. She chooses a home with a Russian mother named Rena, knowing that Rena will not love her like Claire did because she does not want to see this happen again. This new mother has her sell her nice clothes. Astrid dyes her own hair and starts wearing black clothing. When Ingrid meets Astrid again, she is shocked at how Astrid has turned herself.
During this time, there is a movement to free Ingrid. They believe the original decision of "guilty" of killing Barry was wrong and want a new trial. If Astrid lies and agrees to Ingrid's version of the story, Ingrid will be likely be freed. But if she tells the truth, Ingrid will be put in jail again. Astrid uses this new power to force Ingrid to tell her about her father. Ingrid says that all she wanted Astrid to be was strong, but that she has turned into a nuclear site, the wrong kind of strong. She says that she wants Astrid to be back the way she used to be. Astrid says she will only come back if her mother releases her – does not call her as a witness. Ingrid agrees. Ingrid is then put on trial again and found not guilty.
The novel ends with Astrid, living with her new boyfriend Paul in East Berlin. She is reading the newspaper and finds out about how her mother was found not guilty. Astrid is putting together a series of suitcases that stand for all of her experiences through foster homes.