Like a patchwork quilt, Jones builds her novel from the random fragments of the lives of characters in Roma, Kentucky, folks who only dream occasionally of those roads not taken. Certainly, the usual dissatisfactions rumble beneath the surface: Susanna Mitchell, a middle school teacher, is vaguely discontent in her marriage, doubtful of her mothering skills and truly disturbed by the recent bullying of student Emily Houchens by classmates, especially the actions of the privileged Christopher Shelton, on whom Emily has a secret crush.
But currently Susanna has more pressing concerns. Her sister, Ronnie, a woman who frequents bars and avoids commitments with men, her wild reputation since high school unchanged over the years, appears to be missing. Though real closeness has always evaded the sisters, Susanna’s determination to locate Ronnie infuses the novel with her growing anxiety and sense of frustration with the response of her husband, Dale, who makes no bones about his dislike of Ronnie's self-destructive lifestyle. Dale expects his sister-in-law to show up eventually, after a bender or casual romance. Filing a missing persons report, Susanna is further irritated by the reluctance of officials to take the report of a woman with a shabby reputation seriously.
Ironically, the actions of lonely characters form the link of a chain that leads to tragedy; a man's humiliation, a child's search for comfort in a cold world, and a woman's impulsive act of kindness, waking Roma—for a time—from its indifference to the flight of neighbors. Wrapped in fantasies of Christopher as her friend, Emily wanders the woods in the afternoons after school. There she makes a shocking discovery. Instead of alerting authorities, Emily holds her secret close, the scant comfort of a girl whose parents have no time for her and whose classmates bully mercilessly. (There is one scene when Emily is pelted with cafeteria food that inspires long overdue punitive action against the perpetrators.)
Then there is factory worker Wyatt, fifty-five, who like Emily serves as the focus of coworkers' cruelty, the sly mockery of those who find strength in numbers, who get Wyatt drunk only to make a fool of him. There is a chance for Wyatt to change his fate in the random encounter with an overweight nurse: Sarah, a gentle soul who could provide the warmth and understanding Wyatt craves. But opportunity is squandered in a moment, a tragedy engineered by the careless cruelty of others, an action that annihilates the future of a woman and delivers grief in various forms along the path of its destruction.
The author folds her characters in the minutiae of their lives, those lives overlapping to include the traumatized Emily, the distraught Susanna (even her marriage affected by the detective, Tony Joyce, who reawakens her nascent yearnings of a more fulfilling existence), the directionless Ronnie, and Wyatt, who fears he may have lost his one chance at love. In a macabre dance of young and old, the characters stumble through an unfolding nightmare with no happy ending, just a reminder that life is too short to squander and too precious to waste.