The story spans Richard Garay's experiences during the heated political climate of the time. Living with his mother, who dies 50 pages into the novel, Richard is ignorant of "all that is going around me". In hindsight, when he becomes an accomplice of two CIA agents — Susan and Donald, wife and husband — working on privatizing Argentina's national resources, he views those early halcyon days as ones of utter innocence, mixed with a certain lovable foolishness, where the hope of obtaining something was always greater than the pleasure in getting it.
Richard falls in love with Pablo, the son of a local senator, but does not know until later that he too is gay. Pablo's brother, Jorge, who Richard used to teach English at one time, is having a furtive affair with Susan. Toibin builds on the secretiveness of the two relationships — Richard and Pablo's versus Jorge and Susan's — to seek legitimacy for gay love. This is similar to the central conflict in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, where Nick Guest's gay affair is accused of spoiling the party for politician Gerald Fedden, never mind that Gerald is himself having a torrid straight affair. The Line of Beauty beat Toibin's The Master to the 2004 Booker.
All of Toibin's trademarks are present here, including the tactile gloom that pervades his novels. By the end of the novel, both Pablo and Richard have contracted AIDS, and Toibin uses this to develop a measure of beauteous absolution for his characters, from the mere fact of existence. One needs to be of a certain disposition, then, to fully appreciate the longing in these pages.