Bob and Jim Burgess are brothers who have a highly contentious relationship that only gets more strained when their sister Susan's son is accused of a hate crime. Bob and Jim Burgess are both attorneys who live in New York City, but their personalities are very different. While Bob is a sensitive underachiever who works for Legal Aid, his older brother Jim is an arrogant and high-powered lawyer who works for corporate clients. Their sister Susan, who is Bob's twin, has stayed in the small Maine town of Shirley Falls where they were all born. As the novel begins, we immediately see how nervous and sensitive Bob is, as he is deeply troubled by witnessing a neighbor being arrested after allegedly hitting his wife.
The tense relationship between Bob and Jim goes beyond the fact that they have contrasting personalities. Their father was killed when Bob, as a young boy, accidentally released a parking brake while his father was working on a car. This incident, which may or may not have happened the way Bob remembers it, has an impact on all of the interactions between the siblings. Apart from the tension between the brothers, Susan is unhappy about the breakdown of her marriage and has trouble getting along with her son. Apart from her son and an elderly boarder, she lives a mostly reclusive lifestyle in the small town.
Susan is divorced and has a troubled teenage son named Zach. When Zach is accused of a hate crime against a Somali immigrant, Bob and Jim return to their hometown to try to help out their sister and nephew. Zach is unstable and misses his father, who left Susan to move to Sweden. Zach, for no apparent reason, has thrown a pig's head into a mosque populated with Somalis, who are part of a refugee population that has moved into the otherwise sleepy and conservative town of Shirley Falls. The novel explores this group through the eyes of a man named Abdikarim, one of the Somalis who was in the mosque defaced by Zach.
When Bob and Jim return to Shirley Falls, Jim is admired by many people for the success he has achieved. Despite this, Jim overplays his hand by trying to manipulate the local residents into forgiving Zach for the crime he has committed. Bob becomes friendly, and possibly romantically interested in a female minister named Margaret who is sympathetic to Zach. During a conversation with Bob, Jim reveals that it was he, Jim, who was actually responsible for their father's death. Bob, who has been consumed by guilt for this all these years, is not sure whether or not to believe his brother. Zach's legal trouble is resolved when Abdikarim decides to forgive him for the crime and the charges against him are dropped. Zach goes to Sweden to visit his father. While Zach is away, Susan is forced to start socializing and to think of starting a new chapter in her life. When Zach returns to Shirley Falls, his relationship with his mother is much better.
By the end of the novel, Jim's star has fallen a great deal. Not only was his intervention on Zach's behalf a failure, but his career is in shambles after an affair with an intern is discovered. Bob, meanwhile, decides to settle in Shirley Falls and possibly begin a relationship with Margaret. The fate of Jim's marriage is not revealed, but he returns to New York City to beg his wife Helen to forgive him for his infidelity.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the complexity of the family relationships and how it revealed that there was more to each character than was originally apparent. For example, Bob turned out to be more resourceful than he originally appeared, while Jim turned out to have hidden weaknesses.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was near the end when Bob had to convince Jim to return to New York. This represented a reversal of their previous roles, as Jim had previously been the strong and decisive brother.
Opinion about the main character:
I liked the way Bob Burgess, who initially came across like an indecisive and weak character, gradually became more sure of himself as the novel progressed.