The story: Dilly is an older Irish woman heading to the hospital with an undiagnosed health problem. She dearly hopes that her daughter Eleanora will come to visit her. Her first night in the hospital, a cruel nurse gives her a sedative that causes her to freak out and then to dream about her trip to the United States 50 years ago (a vivid description of steerage) and her time working in Brooklyn, where she fell in love and had her heart broken. She returned to Ireland, married a hard-drinking and abusive farmer, and had a son and daughter. Her son cares only about inheriting the farm, her daughter eloped and then became a writer--writing books that have turned her home town against her. Her daughter makes a brief visit to her hospital room, leaving behind her diary when she dashes out to yet another affair. Dilly reads the diary and is shocked--but still determines to return home and change her will so her daughter will inherit.
The letters O'Brien intersperses through the text--letters from Dilly's mother to Dilly and then from Dilly to Eleanora--are marvelous examples of motherly guilt-mongering, but when she devotes an entire section to letters at the end of the book, their effectiveness is sapped.