The two couples meet during the Depression on a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin, where both men – one a wealthy but middling would-be poet, the other a dirt-poor but highly talented aspiring novelist – are happy to have landed hard-to-come-by academic jobs as instructors in the English department. Their pregnant wives hit it off, and the exuberant, dazzling wealthier couple, Charity and Sid Lang, take Sally and Larry Morgan under their munificent wings, helping them out repeatedly in times of trouble, and exposing them to a world they never knew existed.
The beating heart of that world is Battell Pond, the Lang's "discreet and understated" family compound in Vermont, like something "out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque." It is the antithesis of a trophy property, where even conveniences as basic as telephones are eschewed with a self-imposed austerity. Stegner nails the "simplicity expensively purchased and self-consciously cherished, a naturalness as artificial as the Petite Trianon" that characterize such enclaves of Old Money, rich in simple pleasures. But, as in Poussin's 17th-century pastoral painting, even in Arcadia, there is death.