Conrad is the character who goes through the most profound change. He has survived a suicide attempt after the accident that killed his brother, Buck. In some ways his journey is a subversion of the typical coming-of-age novel because he has to learn to regain his innocence after having to grow up too fast. After being hospitalized for eight months, during which he received shock treatments, Conrad feels alienated at school, unable to reconnect with friends and participate in activities that used to give him satisfaction. His grades are falling, and his swimming times are rising. He feels disconnected, too, from his family, wishing for more attention, particularly from his mother. Conrad eventually learns that control—which he has been trying to achieve—is an illusion. Conrad has been hurting himself because he believes himself complicit in his brother's death. When he accepts his limitations, he understands his mother's as well.
After an unhappy childhood spent in an orphanage where his mother placed him, Calvin Jarrett is a successful lawyer living in a wealthy suburb with a beautiful, "ideal" wife. The family goes on high-end vacations, enjoys a full social life, and participates in "country club" sports. Calvin initially believes his biggest problem is his son Conrad's depression. Worried about a repeat suicide attempt, Calvin is instrumental in urging him to see psychiatrist Tyrone Berger. Calvin's concern for and devotion to his son eventually drive him and his wife apart, as he grows to understand Conrad on a deeper level, whereas Beth remains uninterested and unchanged. Calvin is no longer willing to live a life of illusion, even if reality is less than ideal and means the possible end of his marriage.
Beth Jarrett is revealed through the perceptions of Calvin and Conrad. Perhaps this point of view is telling because her inner life is far less developed than those of her husband and son. In fact, superficiality is her defining character trait. Her relationship with Conrad is strained because she cannot forgive his suicide attempt, which she believes was his way of punishing her. Consequently, she no longer wants to deal with him and is annoyed her husband's attention is focused more on Conrad than on her. Her need for attention should not be surprising, for she is not a sharer, keeping personal information to herself and confiding in no one. Her persona is perfection in everything—her looks, her family, her home, and her activities, which center on country-club culture. When Calvin suggests marital counseling, she knows he is no longer happy living the life of perfect order she strives to live.
Dr. Berger is not shown outside of his professional interactions with his patients Conrad and Calvin. However, his untidy office and informal manner indicate his methods. Using language that reaches his teenage patient, he is able slowly to persuade Conrad to open up and be real with him. He asks probing questions that provoke emotions hidden beneath the surface. Because his techniques seem to work well on Conrad, Calvin goes to talk to him about his own issues.
Impressed with his tenor voice, Jeannine Pratt first talks to Conrad after choir. New to the town, she does not initially know about Conrad's past, and Conrad finds her easy to talk to. Later she apologizes for being insensitive in her ignorance, and he asks her out. Like Conrad, Jeannine has had a difficult time and problems in her past. The two become close, discovering they can be honest and open with each other.