The Belsey family consists of a white English father, an African-American mother, and three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Howard Belsey, the father, is a politically liberal professor of art history (particularly of Rembrandt) at the nearby liberal arts school Wellington College, where Zora is also enrolled. Zora is a freshman when the story begins. Her brother Jerome, the eldest, is a student at Brown University. Levi, the youngest, is still in high school, and of a very different culture and disposition than his more academically inclined siblings. Kiki Belsey (maiden name Simmonds), Howard’s wife, is a Florida native, who works at a hospital. At the very beginning of the story, Jerome is studying abroad and interning in the office of a celebrity conservative academic named Monty Kipps.
The Kipps family consists of two British-Caribbean parents, Monty and Carlene, and their two children: Michael, who is in finance, and Victoria, a strikingly beautiful girl, who is eighteen when the story begins. Monty Kipps does a little bit of everything, has published a successful and lauded book on Rembrandt, and is Howard Belsey’s academic nemesis. Howard and Jerome do not exactly have the best relationship. Howard also thinks that Jerome is not masculine enough, scorns Jerome’s Christianity, and is even more peeved at his son’s chosen workplace.
Jerome’s unanswered emails to his father begin the story. His last email says that he is in love with Victoria Kipps and is proposing to her. Howard and Kiki discuss this, demonstrating a clear tension in the Belsey household. Kiki has just found out that Howard has been unfaithful to her, although the details of this affair are not yet revealed. Howard resolves to go and sort things out, but Kiki discovers afterwards from another email that the engagement has already been broken off. It is too late to stop Howard, who arrives in England only to make a scene when Michael wrongly interprets that Jerome has done something to Victoria. Jerome leaves England broken-hearted.
The story fast-forwards nine months. Jerome and Kiki go to the town festival and run into Claire Malcolm, a family friend, famous poet, and fellow professor at Wellington. Claire informs them that Monty Kipps is coming to Wellington. Howard falls into a dark mood over this. Jerome suggests the family all go to a public Mozart concert in Boston. At the concert, they run into Howard’s colleagues, and also meet a young black man named Carl, who no longer goes to school but is still keen to learn, and also performs slam poetry in his free time.
Howard and Kiki’s anniversary party comes to pass. Walking back from work to the party, Levi runs into someone who he does not yet know is Carlene Kipps. In the last minute, Kiki runs over to invite the Kippses, but eventually all the Kipps except the generous and wise Carlene show up. During the party, Howard makes a great speech. However, during this same party, Kiki also finds out that Howard had been lying about his “one-night stand” at a conference: he had actually had an affair with Claire for three weeks earlier that year.
Zora begins sophomore year with a self-improvement mentality, and runs into Carl randomly, and finds herself attracted him. Zora also gets herself accepted into Claire’s poetry workshop after being rejected, on the basis of bias from her father’s affair with Claire. Kiki visits Carlene and they slowly become friends. They also discuss a beautiful Haitian painting on Carlene’s wall. Levi, who works in Boston on Saturdays, is against his projected work shift for the holidays. He quits in a fit of fury while arguing with his manager. Outside, he finds himself drawn to work with a group of Haitian street hustlers who sell knock-off goods.
Kiki and Howard’s marriage is unsurprisingly in a very tense and difficult place. They argue, and Howard intimates that his infidelity may be due to Kiki’s changed physical appearance. One Tuesday, Zora’s poetry class takes a field trip to the Bus Stop, a poetry café. Levi and a new group of Haitian friends of his are also go. They perform a loud and aggressive set about Haitian oppression. Later, Carl also comes to perform, and sweeps the stage with his impressive poetry. He kisses Zora after his performance, in his adrenaline rush. Claire enrolls Carl in her class as one of her “discretionary students,” or non-Wellington students in whom she finds promising poetic talent.
Levi has started working for the Haitian street hustlers, and his partner is a quiet Haitian man named Choo. Howard is teaching his infamous art history class, in which Zora and Victoria Kipps are both enrolled. Howard finds himself attracted to Victoria. Victoria invites Howard to a student-faculty formal dinner coming up in the winter. Howard still has a feud with Monty, who is setting up a line of conservative lectures, which Howard is preparing to try to block; however, he agrees to Victoria’s invitation. Meanwhile, Monty is also working against the discretionary students like Carl, and Claire asks the campus-activist Zora to make a speech to the faculty against Monty’s side. Carlene and Kiki become better friends and go Christmas shopping together.
The Belseys spend Christmas in London with Howard’s old friends. While they are there, they receive a sudden call that Carlene has died. They invite the Belseys to the funeral, and Kiki is very upset. Carlene had hidden her sickness from all of her family and friends. Behind the scenes, the Kipps discover that Carlene has gifted her Haitian painting, a very valuable piece, to Kiki, but the Kipps are sure that she did so by mistake. At the funeral, Howard is overwhelmed with thoughts about death, and runs emotionally out of the service. He wanders, and finds himself visiting his father. He and his father also have a rough relationship, in which the simple, working-class father and the academic, intellectual son cannot connect with each other. Howard gets drunk and then heads to the Kippses’ estate. There, he wanders into the open house, where there is a lot of commotion and guests. While looking for the bathroom, he accidentally wanders into Victoria’s room. The two talk and banter and drink, and then Victoria seduces Howard. They have sex, and then compose themselves and head downstairs.
In January back in Wellington, the big Humanities Faculty meeting is taking place. Howard tries to block Monty’s lectures and fails, although this openly reveals the divided sentiments of the faculty, with a large but also blurry split between liberal and conservative ideologies. As Howard leaves, Zora enters to make her speech for the discretionary students. Howard runs into Victoria outside, who reminds him about the formal dinner that night. At the formal dinner that night, an a cappella performance makes Howard laugh so hard he has to leave. He goes home and shares this story with Kiki, who shares this same distaste and humor for glee clubs. Reminiscing about old times repairs something of their relationship, but they are not ready to be reunited.
Levi pays a call to Choo at Choo’s house. Levi has been becoming more and more of a Haitian nationalist, despite his own complete lack of ties to that country. Meanwhile, Kiki visits the Kippses to bring Monty a pie. She and Monty talk about the differences in their political ideologies. Kiki is surprised to see Chantelle, from Zora’s poetry class, run out of the house.
Carl starts working at the Wellington library, and begins a relationship with Victoria. Monty’s conservative public lectures begin, and Howard sees Kiki attending one of them. When they get home, the couple confronts each other. After arguing, they talk about the state of their marriage and their past love, and have sex one last time.
During spring break, Zora and Jerome attend a Wellington party, where faculty, Victoria, and Carl are all present. When Zora finds out that Carl and Victoria are sleeping together, she is overwhelmed and yells at him in public. She, Carl, Victoria, and Jerome argue in the front yard of the house, until Jerome realizes that Victoria has slept with his father before. Carl also reveals that Monty has been sleeping with Chantelle Williams. Jerome and Zora go home, only to wake up in the morning to find that the Kippses’ valuable Haitian painting has been stolen out of Monty’s office. Monty suspects Carl, but in reality Levi and his group of Haitian extremists committed the theft. While cleaning later that morning, Kiki discovers the painting under Levi’s bed, only to see from the back tag that Carlene had actually gifted it to her before her death. Zora tells her father about Monty’s affair, and also confronts him about his alleged hookup with Victoria. She is saddened to realize this is true.
In summer, Kiki and Howard have separated, with the children still staying with their father for the time being. Howard is about to deliver a major lecture that could possibly get him tenure at Wellington. He sees Kiki in the back row of the lecture, smiling at him, as he looks up at a picture of Rembrandt’s great love.