Fayne Hall sits on high ground overlooking for miles the countryside of the surrounding moor. This is Brontë country, and the Bells have resided on the spot for centuries. As Henry Bell's young (very), rich (very), American (very) wife observes: "Fayne Hall looks to have been built before the flood." Henry Lord Bell is the Seventeenth Earl of the Disputed County of Fayne, disputed because it straddles the border between England and Scotland. Now, as the twentieth century fast approaches, Fayne has fallen on hard times, and the family -- Henry and his unmarried sister Clarissa -- face destitution. Hence the need for Marie Cochoran's capital, accumulated by her rags-to-riches father on his arrival in the United States during the Irish famine. In addition to the cash, and in return for becoming the great, if disputed, Earl's wife, Marie must provide an heir. Babies are born. All of them girls. All of them dead. And then finally Charles, healthy and strong, arrives. But it is Charles's sister, Charlotte Bell, who serves as the novel's exuberant narrator. Raised by her doting and overprotective father, Charlotte is bright, inquisitive and eager to learn, though she lives under the threat of ill-health, described to her only as her "condition." As such, Charlotte is forbidden to leave Fayne or to receive any visitors from the outside world -- until on her twelfth birthday, wonder of wonders, Mr. Margolo, a tutor, appears. Suddenly Charlotte's days are alive with the mystifying new sciences of physics and engineering, and the universes revealed through the lens of a microscope, sparking in her the desire to study at the University of Edinburgh. But just as Charlotte's future appears lit by possibility, Mr. Margolo disappears, abruptly and without explanation, but in circumstances that seem somehow connected to the darkening mystery surrounding the deaths of Charlotte's mother and brother.