It's 1935 in Harrison, Texas. George Tolliver has decided to run for county attorney general, but his older, and more successful, brother Leonard tries to dissuade him because the family's backing has already gone to another local lawyer, his brother-in-law, Billy. George runs, though, after lashing out at the more successful Leonard for less than moral support in the past. At the same time, their late father's brother Virgil appears on the Tolliver family's doorstep, asking for shelter now that he's old and broke. It's a hard decision for the widowed Mrs. Tolliver since Virgil once abandoned them years ago when they needed money; still, they take him in. Within days, Leonard's wife Margaret is found out to be having an affair with Wally Smith, her husband's handyman. On the very same afternoon, both of Margaret and Leonard's young boys drown while swimming in the river with Wally. Believing this to be a punishment for her adultery, Margaret has a breakdown and is institutionalized. In his grief, Leonard lets his law practice crumble and in despair reveals to his mother that he's always known his father committed suicide and did not die accidentally. Things aren't made any easier when Margaret's brother, Billy, murders his sister's lover…and now a neighbor wants to blackmail the Tollivers with a packet of love letters sent from Margaret to Wally Smith. Eventually, Margaret returns home to beg her husband's forgiveness. At first Leonard refuses, but he realizes he does want to start over again and he forgives Margaret before she shoots herself with the gun Leonard was going to use on himself. George, having had to make up for Leonard's absence, has rediscovered his calling as a lawyer and has finally risen to the responsibilities of his own new marriage, impending fatherhood and leading the sorrowful Tolliver household.
In a small Texas town, illicit passion sparks a series of family tragedies between a husband and wife. Meanwhile the man and his brother hash out an antipathy they've been carrying around for decades. "We recognize the accuracy of Foote's observations of human behavior and his insight into the human heart. His [characters] are gentle and full of decency, yet they have a dark side that drives them and vibrates through all the action." —Pittsburgh Post Gazette.