David Henry Married to Norah and father to Phoebe and Paul, David grew up in a poor family in West Virginia, where his sister died of a heart defect at the age of 12. When he realizes that Phoebe has Down syndrome, he tells Caroline Gill to give her to an institution. Distanced from his wife and son, he takes up photography and becomes a relatively well-known artist. After seeing Caroline at one of his lectures, he travels back to his childhood home, where he meets Rosemary, a 16-year-old pregnant girl who has been squatting in the house. He tells Rosemary what he did to Phoebe and brings Rosemary back to Lexington in order to care for her. He and Norah eventually divorce, and he dies from a heart attack while jogging. Always haunted by his family’s poverty and his sister’s death, David is kind but not compassionate, caring but unable to show emotion. He longs to help people but has trouble connecting to anyone on a personal level.
Norah Asher Henry David’s wife and Paul and Phoebe’s mother, Norah is led to believe by David that her daughter Phoebe died in childbirth. Norah suffers from severe depression as a result of this loss. The emotional distance between Norah and David drives her to take a job at a travel agency, where she does so well that she ends up owning the business. On a vacation in Aruba, she cheats on David with Howard. After David’s death, Norah finds out from Caroline Gill that he gave Phoebe away. She later gets married to Frederic and moves to Paris. Norah struggles throughout the novel with her identity as a woman: Is she a feminist, a career woman, a traditional wife and mother, or some combination?
Caroline Gill Caroline is the attending nurse at Phoebe and Paul’s birth. When David asks her to take Phoebe to an institution because Phoebe has Down syndrome, she decides to keep the baby, move to Pittsburgh, and start a new life. She later marries Al and raises Phoebe to adulthood. She also starts the Upside Down Society with her friend Sandra in order to advocate for intellectually disabled children’s access to education and other services. Eventually Caroline tells Norah that Phoebe didn’t die at birth. Caroline is compassionate and, though not fearless, very courageous.
Phoebe Henry (Gill) Phoebe is David and Norah’s biological daughter and Paul’s twin. Born with Down syndrome, she is raised by Caroline. As an adult, she works in a photocopy shop and weaves scarves. She falls in love with Robert, who also has Down syndrome, and they want to marry. Caroline disapproves of their getting married, but thanks to Al, she later softens to the idea. Phoebe is loving, compassionate, and entirely authentic in her personality.
Paul Henry David and Norah’s son and Phoebe’s twin, Paul is a gifted guitarist. He and his father clash over whether he should pursue music as a profession. As a teenager, he steals a car and gets arrested. As an adult, he travels around the world playing guitar. Paul is marked by his intense longing for his father’s affection and simultaneous resentment of his father’s emotional distance.