Ellen MacNamara, Vincent’s wife. More than ninety years old, she is incoherent and bedridden from a series of strokes. She can understand only that Vincent seems to have left her. In her rage and terror, she can speak only curses and obscenities. As a young woman in Ireland, when she saw her father abusing her mother, she used her anger as an impetus to emigrate; she feels the same anger and contempt for the church. Her anger makes her treat most strangers as enemies. Her commitment to intellectual and social causes made her dismiss her two rather ordinary daughters; she often humiliated them and at last psychologically abandoned them in favor of two of her grandchildren, both of whom she stole from their mothers. She retains tenderness primarily for her grandson Dan, whose father was killed in World War II. Vincent has been the only positive force in her life, but his generous love makes her fear that even after sixty years of marriage he may well leave her. Her rage and urge to destroy her family are qualities that have reappeared in her offspring.
Daniel MacNamara, a lawyer in partnership with his cousin Cam. After his father was killed, Ellen drove his ineffectual mother away and reared her grandson herself. Daniel has inherited much of his grandfather Vincent’s skills in peacemaking; such harmony as now exists in the family comes mostly from Dan. In his youth, he was very close to Cam, and they still understand each other well, although each has a life that the other does not share. He treasures a memory of his childhood closeness to his grandmother. Since the failure of his marriage twelve years ago, Dan has lived with Sharon Breen, a secretary from his law office. For a month each summer, his difficult teenage daughters, Darci and Staci, live with him as well.
Camille (Cam) MacNamara Ulichni, a lawyer, Dan’s partner. She inherited Ellen’s strength and fire. After her father’s death, eight-year-old Cam soon saw her mother’s limitations and turned to her grandparents, especially to Vincent, for the emotional support she needed. Her love for her mother always has been strongly colored by her contempt for her mother’s weakness, but when her mother’s health seemed in danger, Cam abandoned her own plans to work for social justice and instead married Bob Ulichni and joined her cousin in practicing law. Her relationship with her husband, never close, is even more distant now that she has begun a love affair with Ira Silverman.
Magdalene, Cam’s mother, Ellen and Vincent’s oldest daughter. She owns a fashionable beauty salon. She has been waiting to die since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1965. She rarely leaves her room and spends the day drinking sherry and trying on clothes. She is afraid of Ellen and is angry and self-pitying about her daughter’s lack of sympathy. She cannot believe that she has been healed.
Theresa, Vincent and Ellen’s second daughter, whose anger at her mother has deepened over the years. Now a charismatic Catholic who talks to the Holy Ghost, Theresa still seeks ways to humiliate her mother.
Marilyn, Theresa’s oldest daughter, a nurse. She has returned home briefly to help nurse her grandmother, partly out of gratitude for Ellen’s accepting attitude toward her mixed-race children. She dreads telling her mother that her third marriage has failed.
Sheilah, Theresa’s second daughter, a social worker devoted to her Irish heritage. Sheilah left her vocation as a nun to marry a priest she had met at a civil rights sit-in. Her desire to hurt and humiliate others masks her deep longing for love.
John, Theresa’s son, who is aimless, dissolute, angry, and possibly dangerous. At the age of thirty-seven, he has come home to live with his parents.