In Anne Tyler’s novel, Macon and Sarah Leary are a married couple grieving for their son, Ethan, who was murdered. Not only was this terrible loss heart-wrenching for both of them, but the absence of their child makes them realize how powerful his role had been in holding their family together. The different directions that each parent goes in trying to cope with the tragedy in part accentuate certain aspects of their personalities that bothered the other one, who had seen as them as minor irritants or something to be overlooked for the sake of the child and the marriage. Mourning itself also creates new, different needs in the marriage, which they both handle differently. Macon needs more privacy, while Sarah needs more communication.
Sarah initially decides that she should not stay in the marriage, but she rethinks her position. One of Muriel’s advantages, although Macon initially would not see it that way, is that she was not part of Macon’s youth and is not saddled with preconceptions of what he is like. Macon, like his brothers, had settled too young into the routines of a much older person. Macon took so many things for granted about the way he lived that he had not seen how hungry he was for a change until Muriel barged into his life.