Kundera's novel consists of seven separate stories. The first story is about Mirek, whose homeland is occupied Russia in 1971. Mirek is under police surveillance, and he tries to discreetly retrieve love letters from his former lover, Zdena. The second story is about a woman, Marketa, and her husband, Karel, who learn to cope with Karel's childlike mother while also dealing with the memories of past desires. The third story is about two American girls, Gabrielle and Michelle, at a French summer school who learn the lessons of laughter. The fourth story is about Tamina, a woman living in a remote town in Western Europe, who struggles to salvage memories of her husband and their life together in Bohemia.
The fifth story is about Kristyna, a woman who becomes romantically involved with a student of poetry and philosophy. The sixth story returns to Tamina, comparing her struggles to remember her husband with the author's own struggle to remember his dead father. In this story, Tamina travels to a remote island, where she is raped by children before drowning. The final story describes an orgy, portraying a group of naked women and other women on a beach as they have sex and exchange opinions about the fate of Western civilization.