Emilia Brauer, pregnant at sixteen and sent away from the only home she has ever known leaves behind her beloved Liam, gives her newborn up for adoption and forges a new uncertain future alone.
Settling for a loveless marriage to the abusive Abraham Meier, manager of the Gem Theater, a bawdy burlesque house on South State Street, Emilia gives birth to fraternal twin sons.
Albert Meier narrates his mother Emila’s story, lives at home, works as a bookkeeper, and wages a silent battle with his sexual identity. When his mother begs him to help her find the child she gave up for adoption, Albert vows to move heaven and earth to do so.
Albert’s twin brother Reuben Meijer is a ruthless, misogynistic bully who leads his life as a grifter enjoying over-indulgence and back-alley dealings all the while intent on destroying his twin brother.
George and Annetta Lewis, meet as orphans, marry, defy the odds, and prosper from a successful business venture in women’s lingerie while raising their three children: Sophia, Georg Jr. and Evelyn.
Georg Lewis Jr. attends Northwestern working in his father’s factory during the school breaks. In the summer of his senior year, he courts the company’s biggest customer who wishes to visit the Gem Theater to see burlesque queen Lily LeBlanc. Georg Jr. falls hard as does Lily.
Lilia Simond, eldest daughter of the wealthy, privileged Simond family travel from France to Chicago where greed and excess destroy them and leave their daughters penniless.
Joel Lewis is the product of the liaison between Georg Jr. and Lilia. Artistic, eccentric, sophisticated and gay, he encounters Albert outside the Gem Theater, seduces him and together, hiding in the shadows, begin a relationship as Reuben stalks them from a distance.
Albert and Joel eventually join Georg Lewis & Son. Albert keeps the books while Joel is the creative force behind the brand. Evelyn Lewis finishes studying at the Art Institute and becomes the company’s buyer.
Reuben amasses a fortune the black-market adult film. Using what he knows about his brother and Joel, Reuben threatens to blackmail Albert while long held secrets are exposed and all hell breaks loose.