Reta Winters is the central character and the narrator. She works as a translator and is a successful novelist. She is portrayed as a good mother and wife who consciously chooses family over personal success. Her daughter Norah’s withdrawal from society and the trauma she undergoes makes her question the patriarchal world that they are living in. Reta tries to understand the events in her life by her using female exclusion as a tool. She comes across as a sensitive person who is also observant, and through her observations we realize that, on exposure, even members of shielded and happy families can react sensitively to the travails of the underprivileged.
The eldest daughter of Tom and Reta Winters is a twenty-year-old college student who is unable to come to terms with the unhappiness of existence. Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that Norah witnessed a self-immolation that she tried to prevent but could not. This traumatized her and motivated her to give up on her education and relationships and became a beggar on the streets of Toronto. Through Norah’s tribulations, Reta unravels how discrete events can shape people’s lives and how people must learn to respond to signals while there is still time to remedy a situation.
Tom Winters is Reta’s husband of twenty-six years; he is the father of Norah, Natalie, and Christine. He works as a doctor, and he and Reta are revealed to live somewhat isolated lives, as they don’t seem to care much about each other’s work or interests.
Natalie and Christine Winters
Natalie and Christine are the two younger daughters of Reta and Tom. They make an effort to visit their sister Norah every Saturday while she is living on the streets, despite Norah’s refusal to talk to anyone. While minor characters, Natalie and Christine still play an important role in proving that unconditional love requires sacrifice when they give up their personal time to make sure their sister gets back on track.
Danielle Westerman, Reta’s friend and fellow author, is portrayed as Reta’s foil. A woman in her eighties, Danielle is single and an avowed feminist, and Reta has translated her memoirs from French. Reta accepts her ideas and counsel about the probable cause of Norah’s anguished conduct. Danielle is portrayed as warm, confident, and affectionate.
Marietta Glass is the wife of Colin Glass, an old friend of Tom’s. She chooses to walk out of her relationship with Colin to be with another man. This event happens with a suddenness that leaves everybody bewildered. Marietta believes she’s in an unhappy marriage with no spark or passion left in it, and Colin’s loss of a partner is juxtaposed against Reta losing her daughter. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that Marietta and Colin are reunited, and Norah comes back to be with her family.