Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
Kirby Christianson’s Japanese lover, Mieko, calls from Japan to tell him that her visit to him, which was to take place in a few days, has been canceled. Her father has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and she must stay with the family. Kirby’s first reaction is a feeling of relief, because he has been unsure of what to do about Mieko and does not think she will fit in with his American family and associates. Feeling guilty about his feelings of relief, he affects sympathy. She breaks down on the telephone and weeps. Wanting to be there for her in an American sense, he holds on to the receiver and listens to her weeping, reflecting that he has never felt that deeply about anything. After she gains control of herself again, she makes it clear that he should not have listened but should have hung up, as a Japanese man would. She has exposed herself to him by her display of grief, and she feels deeply embarrassed. The connection is broken.
Kirby travels from Iowa to his brother Harold’s new home in Minnesota for their family Christmas reunion. While driving through a severe snowstorm, he fantasizes about being killed on the road and there being no one to tell Mieko about his death; it is evident that he has no intimate connections at all. Reflecting that no one would care more than Mieko about his death, and she probably would not even hear of it, he feels sorry for himself.
He arrives safely at his brother’s house and slips back into an unsatisfying relationship with his family. He has only contempt for his older brother, Eric, who writes for a conservative think tank and specializes in family values. His brother Harold is affectionate but seems childish and ineffectual compared with Eric, who dominates the reunion. Kirby is repelled by the limitations of his brothers’ lives and angered by Eric’s domination and moralizing.
The holiday continues, with Kirby watching his family from the sidelines, drinking and becoming more and more unhappy with Eric. When Eric punishes his three-year-old daughter, Kristen, for not eating, his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anna, takes up for her sister, and Kirby joins the fray on Anna’s side. He pushes Eric into a bald and blatant statement of his conservative values, but Leanne, Harold’s wife, stops the argument before it goes further. As the day proceeds, each occurrence shows that the holiday tensions are still present. Eric’s wife, Mary Beth, wants Leanne to unwrap the presents she has wrapped, fearing that the realization that Santa’s presents were wrapped like other presents might tip off the children about Santa. To keep peace, Leanne agrees.
Kirby goes to bed but, at midnight, drunk and restless, comes downstairs and finds Leanne still working. She offers him cocoa, and he tells her about Mieko. Leanne is both sensitive to others and honest. Kirby hopes that Leanne will somehow absolve him of his selfish treatment of Mieko, and side with him against Eric, but she does not. She comments that Eric has his flaws but never tries to get something for nothing, which she admires. This comment makes Kirby take a look at himself, and he flinches from what he sees. As he leaves the room in the dark he stumbles; Leanne guides his hand back to the banister and kisses him on the cheek.