Neil Klugman is a twenty-three-year-old Jewish man living with his aunt and uncle in Newark, New Jersey. He is from a working-class family and has a modest job at the Newark Public Library. His last name means "clever man," but as the novella progresses, it becomes clear that he is really a loser. He has an ill-fated affair with Brenda Patimkin, a Jewish girl whose well-to-do family has moved to the suburbs from Newark. She and Neil meet at a country club while she is home visiting on summer vacation. She is still a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is several years younger than Neil when the affair begins. Neil describes Brenda as "a sailor’s dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sunglasses" and thinks of her family's wealth as an ideal, subtly coveting their home, possessions, and social status. On their second date, Brenda invites him over to have dinner with her family, and even though he likes them well enough, he feels some ambivalence about their apparent readiness to assimilate into American culture.
Neil and Brenda go out together every night for the next two weeks. Brenda then invites him to her family's house in Short Hills, New Jersey, for his week-long summer vacation. Mr. and Mrs. Patimkin give Neil the guest room, which allows the lovers to maintain a veneer of propriety. Neil sneaks into Brenda's room every night that week, and eventually Neil begins to question if his feelings for Brenda stem more from lust than love. Nevertheless, he agrees to stay for a second week and attend Brenda's brother Ron's wedding as her date. Ron is a basketball star and graduating senior from Ohio State University. He surprises his whole family by announcing his engagement to Harriet, his college girlfriend, and their intention to marry over Labor Day weekend. In the midst of the chaos of arranging the wedding, Neil asks Brenda to get a diaphragm. She hesitates but eventually agrees. At the wedding, Brenda's uncle Leo warns Neil not to ruin the good thing he has going with Brenda, unaware that Neil has already done just that by insisting she get a diaphragm. Brenda later asks Neil to...
(The entire section is 895 words.)