Although he doesn’t remember the accident that took his father’s life, Bob is utterly haunted by his responsibility for it. Bob was favored by his mother, perhaps to unsuccessfully assuage his guilt. His siblings, however are mercilessly critical and cruel. Bob’s beloved older brother, Jim, is the golden boy of the family–Harvard Law, a wealthy wife and a career as a famous, high-powered criminal attorney. Bob’s twin sister, Susan, still living in their hometown, is as cold as the Maine winters of their childhood; she openly dislikes Bob.
The brothers have moved to New York City where Jim enjoys a swank apartment in a building equipped with a doorman and describes Bob’s building as a dorm. Bob’s life is stunted. He’s a lawyer who couldn’t tolerate the stress of the courtroom and works instead for Legal Aid. He’s divorced from his best friend who married another man to have the children she was unable to conceive with Bob. His existence is utilitarian. He drinks alone most nights to the backdrop of the couple’s fighting in the apartment below. His empathy for the young wife inspires him to make a suggestion that will turn the tables on the relationship between the Burgess boys.
Maine becomes another character in this gripping story. Jim is embarrassed by Bob’s Maine vernacular and by Susan’s provincialism. Shirley Falls is a down on its luck town being reluctantly reinvigorated by a growing group of Somali refugees. Strout deftly presents the wariness of both the born and bred Mainers and refugees toward one another. The pivotal point in the story comes when Susan’s strange and lonely son throws a pig’s head into a Mosque on Ramadan. Brother Jim is called to the rescue, but Bob is forced to act as his surrogate, and so begins a life altering experience for each of these complex characters.