It centers around the Pentlands, an aristocratic family in the fictional town of Durham, Massachusetts. John Pentland, the family patriarch, hates the tide of social change that is undermining the old traditional WASPy social structure of the town. He lives with his widowed sister Cassie, a bitter scold. John Pentland's wife went insane decades ago and is locked away in the mansion. John's son Anson is stuck in a loveless marriage with Olivia; their teenaged son Jack is sickly. Their daughter Sybil has just come home from a Paris boarding school.
Into this mix comes Sabine Callender, Cassie's niece by marriage, once Cassie's ward after her parents died when she was young. Twenty years ago Sabine left Durham suddenly, marrying a poor man and decamping to Europe. This caused a scandal in town society, and the Pentlands, and especially Cassie, resent Sabine. A now-widowed Sabine has moved back to Durham, and her daughter Therese is making her debut as a debutante in local society.
Many very messy family complications ensue.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: It takes a long time for Jean to spit out how much he loves Sybil, but he finally manages it.Jean: I wish it wasn't necessary to talk. Words spoil everything.
- Anson. Olivia remembers "his timid advances" and "the distaste with which he approached the details of marriage". Eventually she figures out that he got married only because the family wanted a male heir, and that Anson, "left to himself, would never have approached any woman, and gone to the grave as virginal as he had been born."
- Sabine thinks this is true of Aunt Cassie as well; she believes the reason Cassie never had children is that she never let her husband touch her.
- Awful Wedded Life: Anson and Olivia can't stand each other. In fact, they've never been close. They've slept in separate beds for 15 years.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family:
- Well, let's see, an Ill Boy, a Madwoman in the Attic, a loveless marriage, a granddaughter who's paying a little too much attention to the Nouveau Riche Catholic neighbor, much to her father's rage...
- Then there's Horace Pentland, the "old reprobate" cousin who was booted out of town thirty years ago and sent to France because he did...something. It's vaguely implied that Horace was a homosexual. Early in the novel the family gets word of his death and John has his body sent home.
- The Casanova: Higgins, the family stableman. "He has a way of getting into scrapes with the girls from the village. He seems irresistible to them...and he's an immoral scamp." Later the narrative refers to Higgins's "rabbit-like love affairs."
- Dances and Balls: Opens with a ball celebrating Therese's society debut.
- Driven to Suicide: John Pentland kills himself by forcing his horse to ride into a pit. By doing this he forces Olivia to remain as family matriarch, rather than run off with O'Hara.
- Fiery Redhead: Sabine, who has flaming red hair, and also has a rebellious streak that caused her to leave her family behind and run off and get married, much to Cassie's consternation. Sabine rememembers being a free-spirited child who once ran off into the bushes to eat blueberries, and once saved wimpy Anson from drowning in the river.
- Gossipy Hens: Cassie is a nosy busybody, always making catty comments and gossiping about her relations and acquaintances.
- Ill Girl: Ill boy, namely Jack, who is loved by everybody but has been sickly since childhood with some unspecific illness. His death halfway through the novel is the turning point in the plot.
- Kavorka Man: Olivia catches Higgins bonking some girl by a stone fence and wonders how "so gnarled and ugly, such a savage, hairy little man" as Higgins scores with the ladies so much.
- Lonely Funeral: When family outcast Horace Pentland is buried the day after Jack, the only people that show up are Olivia, John, Sabine, Aunt Cassie, and some random old lady from the town who never misses funerals. The minister doesn't even come.
- Madwoman in the Attic: It turns out that John Pentland's wife is exactly this, and has been locked away in the north wing of Pentlands for a very long time. She was already locked away when 19-year-old Olivia arrived there 20 years before.
- Maiden Aunt: Not Cassie, who although she currently fills a Maiden Aunt role in the Pentland household, was married for many years and is now a widow. But her companion/slave, Miss Peavey, is described as an "elderly virgin."
- Nouveau Riche: The mills have led to an influx of Roman Catholic immigrants, anathema to the old-line Old Money Protestant Pentlands, and some of those immigrants have gotten rich. Anson is furious that his daughter Sybil is dating Nouveau Riche O'Hara, who bought up a bunch of land next to the Pentland property. Olivia herself came from a Nouveau Riche Irish family, and she takes it personally when Anson says he doesn't want a "shanty Irishman" marrying into the Pentlands.
- Old Money: The Pentlands have been rich for a long time, and they trace their ancestry back to the Pilgrims. They are the type of people rich enough to name their house—"Pentlands". Aunt Cassie looks down on anyone who isn't Old Money.
- Sexless Marriage: Anson and Olivia have been married for 20 years and sleeping in separate rooms for 15 of them.
- A Storm Is Coming:
- It Always Rains at Funerals, but in the case of Jack's funeral, it isn't the typical melancholy rain, but a frightening thunderstorm that comes with "wild, insane violence." Sabine thrills to "the savage, destructive force of the storm." Jack's death and the extinction of the Pentlands in the male line is a harbinger of violent change coming.
- Another storm rolls through right before John Pentland's suicide.