World War II has only recently ended, and life has started to return to normal in sleepy Brownsburg, Virginia. Charlie Beale arrives, looking for a place to finally settle down, and with his natural charm, he’s quickly accepted as a member of the community. When he meets the beautiful young Sylvan Glass, it’s love at first sight, and Sylvan is more than ready to be swept off her feet by a handsome and dashing beau. She has dreams of Hollywood, glamour, and the movies – dreams that she feared had died for good when her family married her off to the town's richest man.
There is inevitably collateral damage in such affairs, and Goolrick gives us a marvelous array of characters whose lives will be changed along the way. There's Claudie Wiley, the gifted black seamstress who sews for Sylvan the dresses of her dreams; Sam Haislett, the 5-year-old son of Charlie's employer, who will be asked to keep far too many secrets; and the Reverend Lewis Shadwell, who ministers to Brownsburg's black community. Brownsburg itself, which Goolrick describes as "the kind of town that had only one of everything it had, and a lot of things it didn't have at all,” is a lovely setting for the story, and Goolrick’s attention to period detail – including the morality of the era – helps to set the novel’s tone of brooding obsession.
The doomed romance between Charlie and Sylvan is intense, charged with lust and erotic compulsion. That passion, which can never be truly fulfilled, makes the novel a slow, inexorable march to tragedy. When that tragedy arrives, it's incredibly powerful; there's a crushing sadness and a desperate longing to go back and find some way to avoid what was, in retrospect, inevitable.