The book concerns three generations of women affected by a Virginia Woolf novel, "Mrs. Dalloway."
There's Virginia Woolf herself, writing the novel and dealing with her own mental illness. Mrs. Brown, wife of a World War II veteran, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949 as she plans her husband's birthday party. The third is Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian, who plans a party in 1998 to celebrate a major literary award received by her good friend and former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of AIDS.
The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway in "Mrs. Dalloway", with Clarissa Vaughn being a very literal modern-day version of Woolf's character. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan goes on a journey to buy flowers while reflecting on the minutiae of the day around her and later prepares to throw a party. Clarissa Dalloway and Clarissa Vaughan also both reflect on their histories and past loves in relation to their current lives, which they both perceive as trivial. A number of other characters in Clarissa Vaughn's story also parallel characters in Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway."
Cunningham's novel also mirrors "Mrs. Dalloway's" stream-of-consciousness narrative style in which the flowing thoughts and perceptions of protagonists are depicted as they would occur in real life, unfiltered, flitting from one thing to another, and often rather unpredictable. In terms of time, this means characters interact not only with the moment in the time in which they are living, but also shoot back to the past in their memories, and in so doing create a depth of history and backstory which weighs upon their present moments, which otherwise might appear quite trivial; buying flowers, baking a cake and such things.
All in all another excellent read that was made into a wonderful movie adaptation, which I own and watch often.