The story begins with Jerome Belsey, the eldest son of Howard and Kiki, in England. He is staying with the Kipps family. Shortly afterward, when he realizes that he is not going to marry Victoria Kipps, Jerome flies home to Wellington, a small New England college town where his father is a professor at Wellington College. Not long after Jerome's homecoming, Monty Kipps is offered a job at Wellington. The Kippses move into the Wellington neighborhood not far from the Belseys. Although there is another trip to England when Mrs. Kipps dies, the rest of the story takes place in Wellington, a fictitious town an hour or so outside of Boston.
There are no specific events mentioned that allow the reader to pinpoint the date, though one can assume that it is fairly contemporary. Some clues are that the music mentioned is rap and hip-hop. There is also a discussion of immigrants from the Caribbean, especially Haitians, which could place this story in the 1990s. Another contemporary element is affirmative action, specifically the preferential treatment given to African Americans in the attempt to gain a representative population of black students on college campuses.
On a deeper level, the setting includes issues of black versus white neighborhoods. This is seen through Levi and Carl. Levi, who was raised in the midst of upper-middle-class white culture, does not feel black enough. In an attempt to fit in, he adopts the slang and wardrobe of inner-city blacks. He complains of feelings uncomfortable walking through his own neighborhood, where people's first reactions, he assumes, are to think he does not belong there. Carl, the young poet, has similar feelings. At one point, Levi invites Carl to his house. When Carl shows up, Howard Belsey does not recognize him and does not invite him into his home. Later, Carl points out how hypocritical the Belseys and the Kippses are. Their kids look black, but they are really white, he charges. Their actions toward other blacks are based on feeling sorry for them not on an underlying understanding of what it means to be truly black in America.