The prologue begins with Wilson asking the question, "Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?" Wilson identifies the catalyst to his renewed efforts to energize his relationship with his wife: he forgot their twenty-ninth anniversary. He sees this incident as the culmination of the many years he has taken his marriage for granted. While he loves Jane just as much as when they first married, he also recognizes that Jane may not feel the same way. Wilson presents the reader his story, relating the events and emotions of the previous fourteen months, beginning with the missed anniversary.
Chapter 1 explores the current state of Wilson and Jane's relationship. Wilson considers the personality differences of Jane, himself, and their three children, Anna, Joseph, and Leslie. He acknowledges that most of the child-rearing responsibilities have always fallen on Jane's shoulders and now that the children are grown, he feels that Jane knows them much better than he does. Anna, the oldest, works for her local newspaper and has dreams of becoming a fiction writer. Joseph is a social worker at a battered women's shelter. Leslie, the youngest and still in college, is studying biology and physiology with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
Shortly after the missed anniversary, Jane announces to Wilson that she wants to visit Joseph in New York for a couple of weeks, alone. Wilson realizes that his marriage is in a state of crisis, and he visits his father-in-law Noah Calhoun to chat and get some relationship advice. To Wilson, Noah is the authority on how to make a marriage work. The romance between Noah and his late wife, Allie, has taken on almost mythic proportions in the family consciousness. After talking with Noah, Wilson "knew what [he] had to do."
Wilson resolves to court Jane as if they were first starting to date. However, he is not sure why she fell in love with him to begin with. He is not a very romantic guy; he's too practical. He recalls some of his attempts to re-court Jane in the months after the forgotten anniversary, such as cooking fancy meals for her and working off some extra weight. He then explains an important event that occurs just as the thirtieth anniversary nears. Anna bursts through the front door and announces that she and longtime boyfriend, Keith, want to get married in one week, on Jane and Wilson's thirtieth anniversary.
Wilson thinks back on how he and Jane first met, the first time he told Jane he loved her, their first home, and how their relationship developed. Wilson mentions compromises that they both made early in their relationship: Jane settled for a simple civil ceremony instead of a wedding in a church followed by a big reception; Wilson moved to New Bern. Wilson sees the importance that Jane puts on Anna's wedding as a reflection of the regrets she has about their wedding.
Wilson visits Noah at Creekside, the nursing home where he now resides. His wife, Allie, has passed away, and now Noah spends most of his time by the pond. Wilson finds Noah sitting on a bench feeding a particular swan, his copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass lying beside him. Noah loves Whitman's poems, and he has a strong attachment to this particular copy of Leaves of Grass; the book itself had comforted him during his military service and had even taken a bullet for him during World War II. Noah has a strong attachment toward the swan, but the narrative does not yet reveal the reason for this attachment, other than to say that it causes the doctors to think Noah is delusional. Noah recalls a special moment when he and Allie had first reunited after being apart for fourteen years; they took a canoe out onto a lake filled with swans. Noah explains how Allie was always fascinated by swans because of their lifelong devotion to their mates. Wilson has heard this and other stories of Noah and Allie's relationship many times before, told by both Jane and Noah. He understands their importance. When Wilson returns home, he reflects on the ways he has failed Jane in their marriage, with what he terms "innocent neglect."
The wedding plans now underway allow Wilson an opportunity to express his love for Jane in a tangible way. During the week of planning, Wilson makes an elaborate dinner for Jane to help her relax. She comes home very excited that one of her favorite photographers happens to be available for Anna's wedding. When Jane expresses concern about the cost of the wedding, Wilson, a characteristically frugal man, assures her not to worry. She cannot believe her ears. As they are giggling and joking, Wilson thinks back to their first date. He had made reservations at an expensive restaurant, but they lost their reservation because they were delayed helping a stray dog find its owner. As Wilson's mind returns to the present, the easy mood between him and Jane breaks down into awkwardness. He then brings up when he asked Noah for Jane's hand in marriage. This is the segue to Wilson's proposal that they should have Anna's wedding at Noah's house. Jane agrees.
As Wilson takes care of more wedding plans, he thinks back to the first time Jane told him about her parents' legendary relationship. Wilson continues to run errands for the wedding, stops by to see Noah, and then meets up with the landscapers at Noah's house. Later, Jane tells Wilson how exasperated she is with Anna because Anna can't seem to make up her mind about anything—she seems to be just going along with whatever Jane likes. On top of that, Jane is fretting about the caterer. Wilson assures her that he will take care of everything. He feels some of the old magic of their relationship returning.
Wilson is making dinner for Jane when she returns home. As they chat about their respective days, Wilson remembers how worried he was returning to law school at Duke for his last year, being concerned that Jane would...
(The entire section is 2550 words.)