The Jarretts are a well-to-do family who live near Chicago. Calvin (Cal) Jarrett, a tax attorney, and his wife Beth Jarrett have two sons, Jordan (better known as Buck) and Conrad. Tragedy strikes the family one summer when the oldest, Buck, dies in a sailing accident. Conrad feels personally responsible for his brother's death, and after a gradual spiral into depression he tries to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. Thankfully Cal and Beth find him in the bathroom before he dies; they eventually commit him to a mental hospital, where he stays for eight months.
The novel begins one month after Conrad is released from the hospital. Cal has arranged for Conrad to start seeing a therapist named Dr. Tyrone Berger, yet he finds it difficult to get through each day. Spending time with his friends and swimming teammates Lazenby, Stillman, Truan, Genthe, and Van Buren wears on him constantly. In choir practice he meets a new student named Jeannine Pratt, whom he finds to be stunningly beautiful. He realizes that swimming no longer gives him the joy he once experienced. Most significantly, his relationship with Beth is strained; they hardly speak to one another, as Beth avoids him as much as possible.
Conrad visits Berger for the first time. The psychiatrist's appearance, attitude, and approach all unsettle Conrad, but they agree to meet twice a week. The sessions come at an awkward time for the Jarretts, who find it difficult to navigate their family situation. Beth is annoyed when Cal mentions Conrad's therapy sessions at a party. Berger advises Conrad to loosen his grip on his emotions. Meanwhile, an old friend from the hospital, named Karen, contradicts Berger's advice. And with the exception of Lazenby, Conrad's friends offer little help at all. Some relief comes with quitting the swim team in order to make room for his meetings with Berger.
As Christmas approaches, though, things begin to look up for Conrad. He makes progress with Berger, and his relationship with Jeannine begins to blossom. Unfortunately some news from Beth dampens the mood: to her surprise and embarrassment, a friend of hers reveals that Conrad quit the swim team. The revelation sparks a huge argument between Conrad, Cal, and Beth. Cal feels trapped between his wife and his son, both of whom feel wronged by the other. Cal is further disappointed when his attempt to surprise Conrad with a car for Christmas falls flat.
The new year brings a turn for the better. Cal pays Berger a visit of his own, which makes him more aware of his own feelings. Conrad begins dating Jeannine in earnest. She gradually begins to open up about her own troubled past, which makes her one of the few people with whom Conrad feels a sense of trust. Once again, though, Conrad meets difficulty when he encounters his friends from the swim team in the school parking lot after a meet. A few bitter from words from Stillman spark a fistfight. After the fight subsides Lazenby expresses his disappointment about his waning friendship with Conrad.
Cal and Beth take a trip to Dallas. While there, Cal plays in a golf tournament, and Beth catches up with her brother Ward and his wife Audrey. Conrad stays behind in Chicago with his grandparents. One day he reads in the newspaper that his friend Karen has committed suicide; the announcement sends Conrad into a deep bout of depression, during which he recalls the moments leading to his own brother's death. Meanwhile, still in Texas, Cal finally unleashes his growing resentment toward Beth. He finds her coolness toward Conrad disturbing.
In a surge of emotion, Conrad calls Berger to talk through his overwhelming breakthrough. Eventually Conrad realizes that his fear and anxiety are rooted in guilt – blaming himself for Buck's death was his biggest source of torment. He makes the realization just as Beth and Cal return from their trip. Their eye-opening argument drives them apart, and Beth decides to move out. The novel ends on a positive note, however: Cal and Conrad take their first steps toward a more open relationship, Conrad makes strides with Jeannine and Lazenby, and he realizes that Beth loves him despite her emotional distance.