In the dead of winter, at a hospital in a small town in Kansas, we begin to learn about our protagonist Joy Jones’ world. A memory-eating disease, referred to vaguely as “the sickness,” is plaguing the country. First it manifests on the body as small silver blisters, then the infected people lose their memories one by one, and they die within about a week. There’s no cure, and the hospital has an experimental treatment plan for people who haven’t yet contracted the sickness. But this mysterious plan never makes any tangible progress, and people continue to get sick. “After the nineteenth person went to the tenth floor [of the hospital to die], a death for every year of my life, I stopped remembering names,” Joy says of the other patients. Throughout the book, she goes back and forth between hopelessness and hopefulness, and by the time she’s in the hospital, many people in her life have already left her. Her mission throughout the novel is to find her mother, who abandoned her when she was a month old. She knows a handful of vague details about her mother, such as that “her first and only love is water,” and she eventually learns that her mother is the host of a TV show where she explores deep sea wrecks and, according to the Joy’s research online, lives in Florida. Through flashbacks, she talks about growing up in Boston, living with various foster parents and group homes, and her foster “brother” Marcus—who all, in various ways, shaped her.