Anna Quindlen's protagonist, Mary Beth Latham, thinks of herself as "Average. Ordinary. More or less." She's blessed with three teenage children whom she dotes over, a happy marriage and pleasurable work as boss of her own landscape business.
The first sentence of the book plants the seeds of foreboding. Mary Beth wakes to "the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling [her] that there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas." But she is soon engrossed in the laundry, meals, school meetings and recitals that fill her days.
Glen Latham thinks his wife is over-involved in the inner lives of their children, especially their confident, 17-year-old daughter, Ruby. Mother and daughter have a special bond, but it undergoes new strains as Ruby enters her senior year of high school and breaks up with her boyfriend. He grew up in the house next door, and Mary Beth hates to see him heartbroken.
Ruby's earlier eating disorder has primed Mary Beth for signs of clinical depression - which she believes she sees when one of her 14-year-old twins loses interest in school, bathing and leaving the house. She suspects he feels overshadowed by his more popular and athletic brother.
It's a testament to Quindlen's character development and plotting that by the time disaster hits early in the new year, the catastrophic consequences of everyday actions are truly shocking. The Latham home seemed so safe and sound to Mary Beth that she was blind to the real danger lurking outside.
As Mary Beth moves through shock and grief in the aftermath of great upheaval, hidden aspects of her life come to light. She's forced to face what she fears most and somehow try to keep on going. Quindlen succeeds at conveying the transience of everyday worries and the never-ending boundaries of a mother's love.