The guilt surrounding an event which sparks Clayton-Leland (or "Clay-Lee" as she prefers to be called) Calvert's writing this seeming act of penance is her failure to call for assistance when her pregnant mother cries out for help; because of her neglect, both her mother and her unborn child die. Clay-Lee's culpability in their deaths is a secret since she has kept since age eleven.
Before the novel even begins, the theme of penance is introduced. The epigraph is a quote from the Roman philosopher, Seneca: "He who is penitent is almost innocent.”
The way in which Clay-Lee tries to atone, to become "almost innocent" of her crime of neglect is to remember her mother as clearly as possible. To do so, Clay-Lee goes back to the time before her own birth, when her aristocratic mother, Constance, falls in love with her bohemian, artistic father, Rand. The stories about her mother's life come from Clay-Lee's dying aunt, Felicity.
As Clay-Lee learns about the early life of her parents, she discovers that both of them were barely prepared for adult life. Her mother was just 17 when she fell for Rand, and Rand was unprepared for the expectations of a woman outside of his own social class, evident when he moves his bride to Camp Street, a rougher side of New Orleans. Her mother was naïve and sweet (a metaphor for both her mother and the fading of southern gentility is the box of butter mints Clay-Lee opens that have a cobweb clinging to them).
When Clay-Lee can finally form her own memories of her mother, they aren't often very pleasant. For example, when Clay-Lee puts on her communion dress, her mother is anything but complimentary. Then, when Clay-Lee is nine years old, a pregnant woman named Honey McCaleb moves into their home; soon, Honey and Clay-Lee are fast friends.
Trouble starts to brew when "Uncle Baby Brother" comes to town. It isn't long until his villainous intentions towards Constance are revealed. He impregnates Constance. Clay-Le discovers the truth; she worries that her father (unaware of his wife's betrayal) will prefer the new baby to herself. When her mother goes into labor, and Clay-Lee is is the only one around to help, she ignores her mother's pleas.
At the end of the novel, Clay-Lee comes to two conclusions. First, her parents were too young to marry and have an adult relationship. Secondly, and disturbingly, she has a lot in common with Uncle Baby Brother; they both share a degree of culpability in her mother's death.