Not only is Howard a stranger to her, she must move into a house that "loomed...like a lighthouse in a sea of headstones (7)." Her father is the caretaker of a World War II memorial that is American-owned land in the Italian countryside, a resting place for soldiers who never made it home themselves. From her arrival, Lina is intent on returning to the Pacific Northwest and to her best friend, Addie. Yet, she is intrigued by the journal that her mother sent ahead of her.
Sonia, a friend of her mother's and assistant superintendent of the cemetery, "...left the journal right in the center of [the] pillow,...weighing down the bed like a pile of bricks" (56). Since her mother always kept a journal, Lina finds this piece of her mother a link to the story of Hadley and Howard. Still awash in grief, the journal can only be sampled a little bit at a time; however, when she finds the strength to open the front cover, the words "I made the wrong choice" (92) send Lina on a journey of self-discovery and help her to understand the many decisions that her mother made over the course of a lifetime.
Despite her summer arrival, Lina is already registered to attend the American International School in Florence, and her new classmates already consider her "kind of a legend" (61). On her first morning abroad, she encounters Ren, a future schoolmate, who happens to be a bilingual, scooter-driving, soccer player.
It is Ren who begins to help her piece together her mother's life as an art student in Florence. With Ren as a tour guide, Lina explores Florence and meets her Italian schoolmates, finding herself in the process. Throughout the novel, Lina must face her past and determine her future. Confused about her life with Howard, she realizes, "My mother kept us apart for sixteen years. Why are we together now?" (90). This question is the catalyst for Lina's journey and adventures.