Sam and Henny have been married long enough to have six children together; but they don't like each other and barely speak to one another. Worse, they spend much of their energy bad-mouthing one another to their children.
Henny is better and spiteful and filled with hate for just about everyone and everything.
Sam is arrogant and self-important and racist and misogynistic.
Neither is a good parent. Sam spoils his children and Henny neglects them. The eldest daughter Louisa gets the worst of it. Henny hates her because she is the product of Sam's first marriage (a woman adored by Sam who died shortly after childbirth) and Sam insults and publicly ridicules Louisa for her looks (Louisa is homely and overweight) and her ambition to become a writer.
Sam and Henny each try to play the innocent victim; but each is horrible: Sam because of his narcissism and need for control and Henny because of her melodrama and blatant meanness. Each is horrible because each tries to weaponize the children against the other, forcing them to take sides. Only Louisa recognizes this, which is why she is so unhappy.
Things get worse after Sam loses his job and the family is forced to move from Washington, DC to the slums of Baltimore, where Henny - once an industrialist heiress - borrows money from multiple lenders, with no intention of repaying these loans.
As the story wears on, Sam's habit of baby talking to his children becomes more and more annoying; and his overestimation of his own intelligence and morality wear thin. I never grew to like Henny, but I began to despise her less and to understand her descent into madness as the story revealed more of Sam's character.
For me, the story became real enough that it made me uneasy. Stead makes us uncomfortable to see the dark inside of this highly dysfunctional family. I liked the foreshadowing involving Louisa and a neighbor's cat. But I did not like the relationship. And I feared for the future of the children.