Pearl Tull is a rigid perfectionist. She has three children with her husband, traveling salesman Beck, who abandons the family. After Beck leaves, Pearl struggles to maintain a front as if nothing is wrong at all.
Cody, the oldest child, is wild and adventurous, but is envious of his brother Ezra, whom he believes is Pearl's favorite. As they grow up, this plays out in endless pranks.
Ezra is passive, and never tries to get back at Cody. He is nurturing and sweet, traits that often interest Cody's girlfriends, furthering Cody's resentment. Ezra goes to work at a restaurant, which he later manages and ultimately inherits, while Cody becomes a wealthy and successful efficiency expert. When Ezra becomes engaged to Ruth, his star cook, Cody becomes obsessed with luring her away, and ultimately succeeds, but his marriage to Ruth is not easy. Ezra never recovers, and remains at home with Pearl; he is a caregiver, both for Pearl and his customers, but this is underlain by sadness.
Jenny is the third child and the most scholarly of the Tulls, but in college, she marries on an impulse with unhappy results. Only in her third marriage to a man with six children whose wife has abandoned him does she find stability in family life and in her successful, if harried, career as a pediatrician.
A recurring scene in the novel involves Ezra's unsuccessful attempts to bring the family together for a meal at his "Homesick Restaurant", reflecting his desire to unite and mend the family. At Pearl's funeral, Beck returns to the family for the first time. However, they never seem to be able to get through a single dinner without conflict, this time with Cody facing down his father, causing Beck to leave in the middle of the dinner. Ultimately, the entire family searches the town to find Beck, eventually bringing him back to the restaurant to finish their meal together.