Audrina Adare claims she is seven years old when the novel opens in 1971, although it is later revealed that Audrina's memory is unreliable. Audrina lives at Whitefern, a Victorian Era mansion, with her father Damian, mother Lucietta, her aunt Ellsbeth and her cousin Vera. The family takes special care to keep Audrina unaware of precise dates, including that of her own birthday—although Audrina knows she was born on the ninth of September, she is frequently confused about the exact passage of time, leading Vera to mock her for being insane. Audrina's father, however, is convinced that Audrina "walks in her own time space". Nine years before Audrina was born, her elder sister—who coincidentally was also named Audrina and was also born on September the ninth—was raped and murdered in the woods on what would have been her ninth birthday. Damian tells her stories about his "first and best Audrina" and convinces the younger Audrina that, by a process of self-hypnosis (which includes going into the First Audrina's old bedroom and rocking in her rocking chair), she can gain all of the First Audrina's memories and become just as beloved and special as her dead sister, which is what Audrina wants more than anything else in the world.
Audrina lives in virtual isolation, her only real contact with the outside world being her older cousin, Vera, who despises Audrina. Vera claims that Audrina stole her place in Damian's affection and that the "second and worst" Audrina will never be as special or wonderful as the First and Best Audrina. Vera, a habitual liar and borderline nymphomaniac, proves early on that she will stop at nothing to take anything that Audrina loves. Audrina, conversely, is haunted by dreams of her dead sister's rape and is terrified of sex and men. Vera takes great pleasure in taunting and is hell-bent on gaining Damian's affections, such as constantly breaking bones to catch attention, which bothers Audrina a great deal.
When she is eight, Audrina meets Arden Lowe and his mother Billie, a former ice skater who is now an amputee, having lost both her legs. Billie and Arden have moved into the groundkeeper's cottage in the woods where the First Audrina died. Although she fears the woods, Audrina is willing to brave them to see Billie and Arden, and gradually Damian consents to Audrina's visits. Meanwhile, Lucietta, is pregnant yet again. The family calls Mrs. Allismore, a psychic, to come and predict the baby's sex. They are horrified when the woman predicts the child is neither male nor female, although Vera calmly states that it is fitting that a new "freak" would join the family. On Audrina's ninth birthday, Lucietta (six months pregnant) goes into early labor but dies in childbirth; the baby is a girl and is named Sylvia.
To keep Lucietta's memory alive, Audrina takes piano lessons alongside Vera at Lamar Rensdale's home. More than a year after her birth, Sylvia finally comes home from the hospital and turns out to be mentally challenged. Audrina is tasked by her father to take care of Sylvia. Audrina complains to her piano teacher Lamar about not being allowed to go to school—he intervenes and Audrina is finally allowed to go to school, with Ellsbeth begrudgingly agreeing to care for Sylvia while Audrina is in school. A couple of years later, Audrina discovers an affair going on between Lamar and Vera and that Vera is pregnant. In the ensuing confrontation with Audrina about this, Vera has a miscarriage. The next day she leaves town with Lamar Rensdale. Vera leaves a note stating that she is, in fact, Audrina's paternal half-sister, due to an affair that Ellsbeth had with Damian before he met Lucietta. Damian does not deny any of this and says Vera's departure is "good riddance". Audrina is upset he has acted so horribly towards his own daughter, but Damian says Vera hates them all and given the chance would destroy them, and they should pray she stays away; even Ellsbeth sadly admits he is right.
Time passes, and shortly after she turns eighteen in 1980, Audrina discovers that Damian and Ellsbeth are lovers again; however, tragedy strikes again when Ellsbeth threatens to leave Damian because he will not let her go and help Vera (who is alone after Lamar Rensdale has committed suicide). She and Damian seem to work it out, but the next morning she is found dead from a mysterious fall down the inside stairs.
In the confusion following Ellsbeth's death, Audrina elopes with Arden, hoping to escape her controlling father (though she does take Sylvia with her). However, Audrina is still not prepared for sexual intimacy, and her wedding night goes terribly wrong. When the newlyweds return from their disastrous honeymoon, they find that Damian has won over Arden's mother and invited her to live with them at Whitefern. He also offers Arden a job at his company, since Arden has not been able to find work. Audrina is upset at how her father has manipulated events to keep control over her life, and disappointed that Billie has been "tricked" by Damian into believing he is wonderful and kind. She does want Billie and Arden to be happy though, so she tries along with the others to create a peaceful life in the house together. Things seem okay until Vera returns suddenly one day. Damian orders her to leave, but Billie is heart-broken by his cold-heartedness and convinces him to let Vera stay for awhile. It is not long before Vera attempts to seduce Arden.
Not long after Vera's arrival, Audrina (and later Vera) discovers that Billie and Damian have become lovers. At first, Audrina is disgusted and attempts to persuade Billie to leave, saying that her father only knows how to ruin the lives of the women he loves. Billie says that her father has made her feel like a woman again and Audrina comes to accept they are happy. But tragedy strikes again when Billie "falls" down the same steps and dies. Audrina suspects that Sylvia might have pushed Billie, as she always liked and wanted the cart/wheelie board that Billie used to get around, but she shelters Sylvia from accusation.
Depressed and disillusioned, Audrina pulls away from Arden and Sylvia—during this time, Vera continues her seduction of Arden and they begin an affair. At first Audrina does not care, but then her love and sexuality is finally awakened and she tells Arden that she doesn't want to lose him to Vera after losing so many other things. They spend the first happy night of their marriage together. When she awakens in the night and checks on Sylvia, she somehow finds herself at the First Audrina's room, and for the first time in many years she sits in the rocking chair. She has some clear visions of the day the First Audrina died, which include Arden being there in the woods and running away. Confused and upset, she heads back toward her bedroom to confront Arden, and in the darkened hallway she is pushed down the stairs by an unseen assailant. She survives, but falls into a coma, during which she can hear others speak but cannot speak or move herself. In this state, she overhears Vera trying to convince Arden to disconnect Audrina's life-support. With Sylvia's help, Audrina awakens and escapes Vera. Her near-death experience convinces her that she cannot die without learning the secret of the First and Best Audrina.
Audrina confronts her father and demands he tell her the truth about her older sister's death. Damian relents, confessing that the First and Best Audrina never existed. It was Audrina herself who was gang-raped in the woods. Because her father had always told her that she was pure and good, unlike the evil and dirty Vera, the rape left her so traumatized that she attempted suicide. In an attempt to save Audrina from herself, Damian subjected her to electro-convulsive therapy, trying to erase the memory of the rape. Seeing his daughter strapped down and subjected to electric shock was too much for Damian to bear, leading him to try and heal her himself. Following Damian's lead, the family conspired to convince Audrina that she was two years younger than she really was, and that the rape didn't happen to her but to an older sister who died before she was born. Eventually the repetition of this story worked and Audrina believed it. This is why her memory is unreliable. Since the family deliberately changed the clocks in the house and also ripped off calendar days at random, her sense of time was also altered. As Audrina listens to her father's tale she remembers seeing Arden there and realizes he witnessed the rape but ran away in the face of Audrina's older and stronger assailants. This means that he also knew who she really was all these years but kept the secret.
As Damian is relaying all of this to Audrina, Vera appears in the doorway. Upon seeing Vera, Audrina is flooded with clear memories of the day she was attacked and realizes that Vera was the only other person who knew she would be coming home through the woods that day, and also knew how to get to the path. Audrina concludes it must have been Vera who told the boys where to find her that day. She accuses Vera of doing this out of jealousy. Vera denies being involved but Damian believes Audrina and lashes out at Vera. Vera's reaction suggests she is in fact guilty, but when Damian curses her she accuses him in turn of never acknowledging her as his daughter and always favoring Audrina over her, even though Vera is the one who is more like him. She tells Damian that it is his own fault that Audrina was raped. Infuriated, Damian rushes at her. When Vera turns to run she slips and falls down the stairs, later dying of her numerous injuries.
Heartbroken and betrayed, Audrina decides to take herself and Sylvia away from Whitefern, as she is convinced that nothing can flourish in this house but pain and tragedy. She is willing to leave her father and Arden behind if it means escaping her past and the fate of her mother and half-sister. Audrina says her final good-byes, but Sylvia refuses to leave. Her sister's simple words of "home, Audrina, home" destroy Audrina's will to escape. She tries to still leave by herself, but realizes that where there is love there can be forgiveness and the promise of a fresh start. She decides to stay and replace the painful memories with new memories forged on honesty and the deep abiding love of family. She now finally feels like the loving "First" Audrina she has always strived to be.
Audrina Adare wanted so to be as good as her sister. She knew her father could not love her as he loved her sister. Her sister was so special, so perfect -- and dead.
Upstairs in the locked room were her sister's clothes and dolls, her animals and games -- and her sacred rocking chair, which held the secret of all her sister's gifts. Now Audrina will rock and rock and claim those gifts.
Now she will come face to face with the dangerous, terrifying secret that everyone knows.
Everyone except... My Sweet Audrina.
Part One -
In the Cupola
The Rocking Chair
Lions and Lambs
The Nightmare in Daylight
Part Two -
Music Begins Again
Wishes Come True
Almost a Normal Life
A Long Day's Journey
I Take Thee, Arden
Part Three -
A Second Life
Again Upon a Rainy Day
The Secret of Wind Chimes
The First Audrina
The Last Spin of the Web