This historical coming of age novel revolves around the Paris National Institute for the Deaf and the rue Saint-Jacques location it has occupied since 1794. It chronicles a decade in the lives of the director of the institute, Father Sicard (historical), and three boys–two of them nonhearing and nonspeaking–who struggle to overcome impairments and misfortune as they endeavor to find their way in the antagonistic world of the French Revolution. Jean Massieu (historical), the youngest child in a poor, provincial family of six deaf siblings, seeks to find success and happiness within the deaf community as a teacher. Eric Touzot (fictional), an orphan of unusual talent, is determined to prove to himself and the world that he can match wits with the hearing community and come out on top. Guy-Robert Ledoux (fictional), fatherless and the brother of a deceased deaf twin sister, has been soured to the point that he thinks only in terms of self-gratification and personal gain.
Jean and Eric, first as adolescents and then as young men, discover that mastering sign language and learning to read and write are only two of the many challenges they face. Hormones, sex, love, the prospects for marriage, the overriding need to find a self-sustaining profession, and unrelenting bias all pose daunting obstacles. Complicating matters, the unpredictable events of the French Revolution place everyone in harm's way. Guy-Robert, who is older and whose outlook and hearing set him apart from the two boys, is all-too-willing to court danger in pursuit of money, sex, and social standing. He allows himself to be recruited as counterinsurgent agent solely in order to reap the spoils. Addicted to sex but disdainful of love, he hadn’t counted on meeting the beautiful and rapacious Alexandra Gallo, wife of one of the most powerful and feared arms brokers in Europe. He couldn’t have known that the theft of her jewels and secret love letters would lead him to such ecstasy... and agony.