On the front porch of their Iowa farm house, Margaret Stuart and her sister Elspeth watch the arrival of the funeral guests of Margaret's husband Alec. Having aged rapidly and before their time, they seem to be twins; although in fact there is a seven year age difference between them. Living with them, grieving alone in his room is Malcolm, their son.
This is the introduction to Wallace Stegner's first short novella, written in 1936 as his submission to a prize contest held by Little, Brown & Co. (Not surprisingly, Stegner won.) We next see the sisters 18 years earlier, at Elspeth's arrival in Iowa. Margaret and Alec are a handsome and, it seems, happy couple; although there are early warning signs – Margaret complains about her husband's taste for alcohol, he about her moralizing. Soon after the arrival of Margaret's younger sister, pretty and ostensibly much more naïve and innocent than Margaret, the relationship between the three begins to change; subtly but inevitably, until Margaret eventually stumbles into the discovery of her husband's affair with Elspeth.