The town of Emilia--like Italy, ""all churches and towers on the outside but crap on the inside""--that's where Califfa whose real name is Irene Corsini lives--wretchedly. Her marriage to Guido, suspicious and humiliating, a murderer and a loser, ends when he is killed in a strike; their only child had died. She moves in with her friend, Viola, who works on her back to support a clutch of children and rent a fancy dress for Califfa. After all ""being a whore is like getting into a bed that's not yours. The first night it's hard to sleep, but then. . . ."" However Califfa's new life of sin is not to be equated with her old one of misery. She meets the richest man in town, Doberdo, and although at first put off by his stertorous breathing (he has a bad heart), she gains importance in his eyes as his ardor is rediscovered, his youth revitalized--briefly. Realismo is subdued and gentled throughout this stubborn search for survival on any terms, however painful for those involved, or uncomfortable for their spectators.