“We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip,” begins the Greek chorus of elderly women known as the Mothers, who belong to Nadia Turner’s church, Upper Room. Alternating between this group’s voice and an omniscient third-person narrator, Bennett introduces readers to Nadia, a seventeen-year-old black girl living in San Diego in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. The winter after Nadia’s mother shoots herself in the head in a parked car, Nadia meets Luke, the pastor’s son and a hometown football hero. Shortly after earning a sports scholarship to San Diego State, he injured his leg so badly that he still walks with a limp.
Distraught and unmonitored by her grief-stricken father, Robert Turner, Nadia skips class and wanders through San Diego, even going to a strip club to drink booze, despite being underage. One day, she visits Fat Charlie’s seafood restaurant, where Luke—several years her senior—takes her order and flirts with her. From this point on, Nadia makes a habit of seeing Luke at the restaurant, and the two grow closer. Before long, they start hooking up, though they keep their relationship secret because Nadia isn’t eighteen yet and Luke’s parents are well-respected church officials. When Nadia’s father is gone for the weekend, she sneaks Luke into her childhood bedroom and has sex for the first time, embracing the pain because it matches how she feels on the inside. “She wanted Luke to be her outside hurt,” Bennett writes.
Soon, Nadia discovers she’s pregnant. When she tells Luke, he’s terrified but quick to listen to what she wants to do. She tells him that she wants an abortion, and he promises to get her the money. The next day, he presents with an envelope stuffed with $600 and promises to pick her up when the procedure is over at the abortion clinic—a clinic that their church, Upper Room, has picketed in the past.
Despite his promise, Luke doesn’t pick Nadia up after the abortion. As she waits for him in the lobby after the procedure, her stomach cramps painfully and the clinic’s only black nurse urges her to eat, but Nadia resists the woman’s help. Nadia feels judged by her, as if the dreadlocked nurse thinks Nadia is “just another black girl who’[s] found herself in trouble and [is] finding her way out of it.” Eventually, a volunteer at the clinic drives Nadia home, where she crawls into bed and tells her father she isn’t feeling well due to menstrual cramps—an excuse that fends him off because it plays upon his uneasiness surrounding feminine matters. Before he leaves her room, though, she asks to borrow his truck, which he’s obsessed with and uses to run errands for the church. Hesitantly, he agrees, and Nadia drives the truck to a beach-house party, where she finds an unapologetic Luke. “Some shit came up,” he says when she asks where he was earlier. Upset, Nadia gets drunk and drives her father’s truck home, running it into a tree and destroying the side of the truck as she turns into the driveway.
As the community members gradually hear that Nadia got drunk and crashed her father’s truck, Pastor Sheppard (Luke’s father) decides it would be good to give Nadia a job at Upper Room. He tells his wife, Latrice, that Nadia will be her assistant, but Latrice resists the idea because she believes they don’t “owe” Nadia anything. Apparently, Luke told his parents about Nadia’s pregnancy, and they were the ones who gave him the $600 for her abortion, though they’re morally opposed to the procedure. Even though Latrice upholds that the family should wash their hands of Nadia Turner, the Pastor feels guilty about the entire ordeal and insists Latrice take on the young woman as an assistant for the summer.
Although Nadia doesn’t want to work in Upper Room, her father forces her to accept the Pastor’s offer. As such, she spends her summer in the church before going to college in Michigan. At the church, she works under Latrice’s stern gaze, feeling all the while that the First Lady disapproves of her, though Nadia doesn’t know Luke told his parents about her pregnancy. Nevertheless, she’s wounded by Latrice’s unaccepting attitude, a feeling compounded by the fact that the First Lady shows warmth and acceptance to Aubrey—a religiously devout girl who also works in the church. Nadia initially thinks that Aubrey is boring and unrelatable. However, the two girls eventually become friends after Aubrey starts eating lunch with Nadia and reveals that she, too, lives without a mother. Although Aubrey’s mother is still alive, they don’t maintain a relationship because Aubrey’s mother didn’t intervene when her boyfriend, Paul, frequently raped Aubrey. Aubrey doesn’t tell Nadia this detail, but the fact that both girls understand what it’s like to navigate the world without a mother endears them to one another. The two girls start spending all their time together, having nightly sleepovers at Aubrey’s sister Monique’s house, where Aubrey lives.
In the fall, Nadia goes to college in Michigan, leaving behind her life in San Diego. Meanwhile, Luke joins a local football team called the Cobras, which is made up of slightly older men, all of whom have experienced similar disappointments as Luke in their athletic careers. As Luke gets in shape and begins to enjoy playing again, he grows close to a fellow player named Finch. Spending more and more time with this new friend, Luke also gets to know Finch’s wife, Cherry. Luke even starts making excuses to go to Finch’s house just to see Cherry because he enjoys their long, engaging conversations. One day, though, Cherry kisses the scar on Luke’s leg—an intimacy one of her children witnesses. Later, when Luke is on break at Fat Charlie’s, a group of Cobras jump him and severely beat him, specifically targetting his bad leg to ensure he’ll never play football again.
Luke’s recovery is slow, requiring him to live in a rehabilitation facility to regain the ability to walk. After several weeks of boredom and pain, he is delighted when Aubrey visits him on behalf of Upper Room. Though he’s never thought about her before, Luke takes refuge in Aubrey’s presence and asks her to return with donuts from the donut shop where she works. She obliges, and the two grow closer until. When Luke is finally out of rehab, they start dating, though Aubrey wears a purity ring and makes it clear that she only wants to kiss Luke—a decision he honors, though he’s eager to take their physical relationship to the next level.
Nadia isn’t thrilled when she hears Luke and Aubrey are dating, but she has a new boyfriend of her own, a kind-hearted and politically active man named Shadi who also goes to school in Michigan. When Aubrey and Luke eventually get married, Nadia and Shadi return to San Diego for the wedding, a period during which Nadia and Luke have several tense moments marked both by resentment and attraction. Nonetheless, neither one of them mention their history to Aubrey, who only knows that Luke once dated a girl who got an abortion. Before long, though, Aubrey also learns that Nadia and Luke hooked up, but they both tell her this happened long ago and is nothing to worry about. Aubrey and Nadia have an awkward conversation about this several days before the wedding. As they lounge on the beach, Aubrey broaches the subject, but Nadia manages to make her feel “silly for being upset.” At this point, two Marines approach and ask the girls to play volleyball with them. After some initial hesitations, Nadia and Aubrey join these two flirty men, and Aubrey later finds herself drawn to Russell Miller, the taller of the two—an older man who has experienced active duty. As Nadia and the other Marine swim after sunset, Aubrey and Miller go into the public bathroom and start kissing passionately. Aubrey straddles him until he tells her he doesn’t have a condom, at which point she rolls off and leaves him, feeling guilty and exhilarated at the same time. After the wedding, Nadia returns to Michigan and thinks—as she often does—about Baby, the child she and Luke would have had if she hadn’t gotten an abortion.
Several years later, when Nadia is in law school, she wakes up in the middle of the night to a phone call informing her that her father has been badly injured while working out in his backyard, crushing his chest while bench-pressing. Back in her hometown, Nadia cares for her father diligently and feels guilty for having left him alone in the first place. One day, Nadia is surprised when Luke appears in the doorway with food sent from the Mothers. It isn’t long before he starts coming by frequently, and the two eventually begin an affair.
As Nadia and Luke have regular sex, Aubrey tries desperately to get pregnant, wondering if she’s infertile. To make things worse, her sex life with Luke is strained and unpleasant, mostly because she can’t bring herself to enjoy the act. Still, she wants to have a baby, and after drinking multiple glasses of wine one night, she pulls him to the couch and they make love, finally conceiving a child. During this time, Aubrey messages back and forth with Miller, who has been stationed in Iraq. She takes comfort in communicating with him, but she doesn’t tell anybody, even Nadia, who she asks one day to accompany her to a fertility doctor. Nadia tries to make up an excuse but eventually relents and goes with her friend. In the office, the doctor asks Aubrey if she’s ever had an abortion—a comment that unsettles Nadia. With the doctor out of earshot, she tells Aubrey that she “can’t believe [abortion] follows [people] around like that.” This comment tips Aubrey off, and she suddenly connects the fact that Nadia and Luke used to date with the fact that Luke once dated somebody who got an abortion.
One day, Miller surprises Aubrey by appearing at Upper Room and asking her to lunch. Several days later, she takes him up on his offer, and they share a dessert at a local restaurant. When this news inevitably gets back to Luke, he confronts her, asking why she’s splitting desserts with a strange man. His accusations backfire, though, and she finally reveals that she knows about his affair with Nadia. With this, Aubrey moves out of their shared apartment and refuses to speak with either him or Nadia.
Luke and Nadia’s affair draws to a close, as each one tries desperately to communicate with Aubrey. During this period, Nadia’s father overhears Nadia saying something about the abortion clinic. When she’s out one evening, he goes through all of her drawers and finds a small golden pair of baby feet that was originally given to Nadia by a nurse at the pregnancy clinic. These feet, the woman told her, were the exact same “shape and size” of her own eight-week-old baby. As such, Nadia found herself incapable of throwing them away. When Nadia’s father finds the feet, he’s outraged that his daughter did such an immoral, unchristian thing. Worse, she’s forced to tell him that the Pastor and the First Lady gave her the money for her abortion.
The next morning, Nadia’s father drags her into the church to confront the Pastor, whom Robert shouts at and calls a “son of a bitch.” As his anger unfolds, one of the Mothers overhears the heated conversation from the hallway and later tells her friends the scandalous news about how the Pastor helped Nadia Turner get an abortion. The information spreads quickly and, as a result, Upper Room loses its many congregants. Unable to support itself, the church soon closes its doors.
Nadia leaves town to become a successful lawyer on the east coast. Meanwhile, Aubrey and Luke reconcile, and Aubrey gives birth to their baby girl. Although the church has been shuttered, the Mothers still meet every Sunday to pray for anybody “who comes to mind,” interceding on their behalf. On one such day, they see Nadia driving her father’s truck. She’s in her thirties now, and though the Mothers don’t know why she’s returned to town, they think they spot a Barbie backpack in the front seat, which they suspect is a gift for Aubrey’s daughter. “We will never know why she returned,” the Mothers say, “but we still think about her. We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She’s her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside of you.”