The novel begins with Virgil Adams confined to bed with an unnamed illness. There is tension between Virgil and his wife over how he should go about recovering, and she pressures him not to return to work for J. A. Lamb once he is well. Alice, their daughter, attempts to keep peace in the family (with mixed results) before walking to her friend Mildred Palmer's house to see what Mildred will wear to a dance that evening.
After Alice's return, she spends the day preparing for the dance, going out to pick violets for a bouquet, as she cannot afford to buy flowers for herself. Her brother, Walter, initially refuses to accompany her to the dance, but as Alice cannot go without an escort, Mrs. Adams prevails upon Walter, and he rents a "Tin Lizzie" to drive Alice to the dance.
Walter's attitude towards the upper class is one of obvious disdain—he would rather spend his time gambling with the African-American servants in the cloakroom than be out in the ballroom at the dance. Alice forces him to dance with her at first, as it will be a grave embarrassment for her to stand alone, but Walter eventually abandons her. Alice uses every trickin her book to give the impression that she is not standing by herself, before dancing with Frank Dowling (whose attentions she does not welcome) and Arthur Russell (a rich newcomer to town who is rumored to be engaged to Mildred), who she believes danced with her out of pity and at Mildred's request. She leaves the dance horribly embarrassed after Arthur discovers Walter's gambling with the servants.
The next day, Alice goes on an errand for her father into town, passing Frincke's Business College on the way with a shudder (as she sees it as a place that drags promising young ladies down to "hideous obscurity"). On the walk back home, she encounters Arthur Russell, who shows an obvious interest in her. As she assumes he is all but spoken for, she doesn't know how to handle the conversation—while warning him not to believe the things girls like Mildred will say about her, she tells a number of lies to obscure her family's relatively humble economic status.
Arthur returns, several days later, and his courtship of Alice continues. All seems well between them until he mentions a dance being thrown by the young Miss Henrietta Lamb; Arthur wants to escort Alice to the dance, and she lies to cover for the fact that she is not invited to the event. Mrs. Adams uses Alice's distress to finally goad Virgil into setting up a glue factory (which she has long insisted would be the family's ticket to success). It is eventually revealed that the glue recipe was developed by Virgil and another man under the direction and in the employ of J.A. Lamb, who over the years declined to take up its production despite repeated proddings from Virgil. Although initially reluctant to "steal" from Mr. Lamb, Virgil finally persuades himself that his improvements to the recipe over the years has made it "virtually" his.
As Arthur continues his secret courtship of Alice (he never talks about her nor tells anyone where he spends his evenings), Alice continues spinning a web of lies to preserve the image of herself and her family that she has invented. This becomes especially difficult when she and Arthur encounter Walter in a bad part of town, walking with a young woman who gives the appearance of being a prostitute. At home, Walter is confronted by his father, who demands that Walter quit Lamb's to help in setting up the glue factory. Walter refuses to help his father without a $300 cash advance, which Virgil cannot afford.
Virgil arranges to resign from Lamb's employ without speaking to him face-to-face, as he fears the old man's reaction, and puts the glue factory into operation. Meanwhile, Alice works frantically to convince Arthur that the things other people will say about her won't be true, and continues to press the point even when Arthur insists that no one has spoken about her behind her back, and that nothing anyone else could say would change his opinion of her. Mrs. Adams decides to arrange a dinner so that Arthur can meet the family, and sets about planning an elaborate meal and hiring servants for the day, so that Arthur will be impressed. Walter again demands cash from his father (the amount has now risen to $350) without explaining why he needs it, and is again rebuffed. While these events occur at the Adams house, Arthur finally overhears things about Alice, which strikes a chord, and her family, including the fact that Virgil Adams has "stolen" from J. A. Lamb in setting up a factory with Lamb's secret recipe for glue.
The dinner itself is a total disaster: the day is unbearably hot, the food far too heavy, the hired servants surly and difficult to manage, capped by Virgil unwittingly acting like his lower-middle-class self, not the well-to-do businessman his wife and daughter wish him to act. Arthur, still reeling from what he heard about the Adamses earlier in the day, is stiff and uneasy throughout the evening, and Alice feels increasingly uncomfortable. By the end of the night, it's apparent to her that he will not come courting again, and she bids him farewell. That night, word reaches the family that Walter has skipped town, leaving behind him a massive debt to his employer, J. A. Lamb, which will have to be paid to keep Walter out of jail. The following morning, Virgil arrives at work to see that Lamb is opening his own glue factory on such a huge scale that Adams will not be able to compete, and will never make enough money to either pay his son's debts or pay off the family's mortgage.
Virgil confronts Lamb about this state of affairs, working himself into such a state that he collapses, and returns to the same sickbed at home where he began the book. Lamb takes pity on the man, and arranges to buy the Adams glue factory for a sufficient price to pay off Walter's debts and the family's mortgage. The Adams family takes in boarders to help keep the family afloat economically, and Alice heads downtown to Frincke's Business College to train herself in employable skills so that she can support the family. She encounters Arthur Russell on the road, and is pleased that their conversation is both polite and brief—there is no possibility of renewed romance between them, which she accepts peacefully.