The novel is both a portrait of a marriage and a commentary on the history of California. Everett McClellan and his wife, Lily, are the great-grandchildren of pioneers, and what happens to them (murder and betrayal) is suggested as an epilogue to the pioneer experience.
In her 2003 book of essays Where I Was From, Didion turned a critical eye on this novel. She recalled writing it as a homesick girl lately moved from California to New York, and judged it to be a work of false nostalgia, the construction of an idyllic myth of rural Californian life that she knew to never have existed.
In a 1978 interview, Didion said that she had intended the title to be Run River but that the English publisher, Jonathan Cape, inserted a comma; "but it wasn't of very much interest to me because I hated it both ways. The working title was In the Night Season," which her American publisher did not like.