Two prominent themes are guilt and atonement. Because he articulated his distrust of his sister-in-law Lucy, Ian Bedloe believes he is directly responsible for the death (possible suicide) of his brother, Danny, and the subsequent death of Lucy; however, his parents insist that both deaths are tragic accidents. While no one else blames Ian, there is no one to absolve him of his guilt. The Reverend Emmett’s emphasis on concrete reparations appears to suggest a path toward atonement, and his fellow church members come to regard him as saintly, but Ian remains focused on the last few words he exchanged with Danny, even after he has spent years vainly seeking atonement. Only when Rita forces him to discard the doubts and insecurity associated with his past does Ian finally manage to heed the other part of the Reverend Emmett’s advice: to forgive himself for his actions and likewise to forgive Danny and Lucy for their reactions.
Although Ian’s church, the Church of the Second Chance, does not recognize traditional communion services, the theme of communion is important throughout the novel. For example, the Bedloes create a community on Waverly Street because their holiday meals always include neighbors, including Mrs. Jordan and the Middle Eastern graduate students. At these meals, Bee serves a variety of everyone’s favorite hors d’oeuvres rather than a traditional dinner. Meals play an important role throughout the novel. A significant incident involves the various family members’ sharing their dreams/nightmares at breakfast on Claudia’s thirty-eighth birthday. Ian says nothing, but Claudia’s comment that nothing dramatic has ever happened to her contrasts with his inner conflict. Another key symbolic episode occurs at the church’s Christian Fellowship Picnic, where Doug Bedloe starts to accept Ian’s vocation and his connection with the church as Ian is able to repair damage to a valuable wooden table belonging to the wealthy relative of a church member. Later, Ian begins to regard the Reverend Emmett as an equal in the episode in which he teaches Emmett to make onion dip and the two of them make chips and dip their entire evening meal. The restoration of the Bedloe family is signaled, however, after the marriage of Ian and Rita, when Rita resumes Bee’s custom of serving hors d’oeuvres at the family’s holiday dinners.