The story describes the joys and pains of the ordinary marriage of Ira and Maggie Moran as they travel from Baltimore to attend a funeral and back home again in one day. It also examines Maggie's attempts to reconcile her son and daughter-in-law. During the journey to the funeral, we learn how both Ira and Maggie have forgone their youthful dreams and feel they have settled for an "ordinary life." We experience how they exasperate each other—Maggie too talkative, too meddling; Ira too logical, uncommunicative, and too judgmental. A few detours during their 90-mile drive reveal Ira and Maggie's "incompatibilities, disappointments, unmet expectations—and lasting love".
Edward Hoagland describes the novel: "Maggie, surprised by life, which did not live up to her honeymoon, has become an incorrigible prompter. And she has horned in to bring about the birth of her first grandchild by stopping a 17-year-old girl named Fiona at the door of an abortion clinic and steering her into marrying Maggie's son, Jesse, who is the father and, like Fiona, a dropout from high school....The book's principal event is a 90-mile trip that Maggie and Ira make from Baltimore...to a country town in Pennsylvania where a high school classmate has suddenly scheduled an elaborate funeral for her husband. Maggie...indulges her habit of pouring her heart out to every listening stranger, which naturally infuriates Ira, who, uncommunicative to start with, has reached the point where Maggie can divine his moods only from the pop songs of the 1950's that he whistles....Maggie, although exasperating,...is trying to make a difference, to connect or unite people, beat the drum for forgiveness and compromise.
As Ira explains, "It's Maggie's weakness. She believes it's all right to alter people's lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her point of view of them."