The expense of living in Boston growing too great, the Hathaways — John, his wife Ann, and their two daughters, Penn and Alice — move to Buffalo, NY. They hope to find a house in a rural area, like the one John grew up in and Alice pines for, but are forced to settle for one in the city. Aunt Emma, a stern old woman that no one likes, invites herself to spend a few weeks with them. This turns into several years, and indeed, the rest of her life. Aunt Emma is at first resented, but eventually becomes part of the family, particularly by Alice when she realizes how utterly alone her aunt is and how acutely aware she is of being unwanted.
Alice is a bookish person and an aspiring poet, quite unlike her vivacious, party-hard sister Penn. Max Hiller, a promising young violinist, is Penn’s boyfriend and at last fiancé, but their personalities are not a match. Alice is secretly in love with him herself, and even Penn admits that she would be a better match. At college, Penn meets a boy more her style, and at graduation, confesses that she’s eloped with him. She leaves it to Alice to break the news to Max, who takes it hard but comes around to accepting it. He also comes around to noticing the sister he overlooked. The two are married at the story’s end.