The story of a New York City teenager, her actress mother, and the girl’s adolescent crusade through the thickets and tangles of the grown-up world as she tries to make amends for her complicity in a terrible accident.
Out shopping for a cowboy hat for an upcoming family vacation Lisa Cohen, a 17 year old high school girl from Manhattan’s ultra-liberal Upper West Side, spots a bus driver wearing the exact hat she’s searching for; she runs alongside the bus attempting to get the driver’s attention while he waves back and flirts with her instead of looking where he is going. His concentration on Lisa, he runs a red light and hits a woman crossing the street, severing her leg. Lisa is the first to reach the woman, who dies in her arms. When the police interview them after the accident neither Lisa nor the bus driver says anything about their interaction or the bus running the light.
Lisa goes home and tries to return to her normal teenage life. But after a few days of guilt-wracked strain she tells her mother, Joan, a divorced theater actress, what really happened – hoping for some firm adult urging to go back to the cops and tell the truth. But she catches her well-meaning mother at a moment of distraction, and Joan’s first reaction is the same as Lisa’s: Why get the driver in trouble when it was just an accident? This is not the answer Lisa is looking for, and from that moment she privately turns against Joan with the full crushing power of a wounded adolescent.
Writhing with frustrated moral purpose and burning sexual guilt Lisa engages on a double crusade – to atone for what she’s done and to punish her mother for not providing her with the concrete solution she was looking for. As the rest of her life refuses to simplify itself at school, with her friends, teachers, and her distant father in California, Lisa begins to act out sexually. She recklessly loses her virginity to an older boy in school, does everything she can to seduce her handsome young geometry teacher, and systematically torments her mother whose life is otherwise taking a turn for the better – with a new man on the scene and a big success on the Off-Broadway stage.
When Lisa finally tracks down the bus driver and urges him to go with her the police with the full story, he aggressively denies any wrongdoing. She is backed down but not scared off and now she determines to see him punished: Arrested or fired or both. She enlists the help of the dead woman’s best friend, Emily, a tough-minded woman brimming over with the determination and single-mindedness Lisa so bitterly finds lacking in her gentler mother. With Emily providing cogent adult guidance and a moral fury exceeding her own, Lisa launches into a campaign against the bus driver that gives her the clarity of purpose she’s been hungering for.
But Lisa discovers that justice in the adult world a lot harder to manifest than her absolutist adolescent mind could have ever conceived. Confronted with the police department’s refusal to re-open the case, and the labyrinthine complexities of a real-life civil lawsuit, despite all her fortitude in the end she simply cannot succeed in getting the driver fired from his job. The best the law can provide is a settlement to the dead woman’s money-grubbing relatives in Arizona, which they are delighted to accept.
Her crusade foiled and her unyielding teenage idealism dealt its mortal blow, Lisa finally relents in her savage campaign against her mother’s imperfections, and at the eleventh hour at least discovers the more humane balm of forgiveness and generosity.