The novel is set in Britain in three parts, taking place in 1983, 1986 and 1987. The story surrounds the young gay protagonist, Nick Guest. Nick is middle-class and from the fictional market town of Barwick in Northamptonshire; he has graduated from Worcester College, Oxford with a First in English and is to begin postgraduate studies at University College London. Many of the significant characters in the novel are Nick's male contemporaries from Oxford.
The book explores the tension between Nick's intimate relationship with the Fedden family, in whose parties and holidays he participates, and the realities of his sexuality and gay life, which the Feddens accept only to the extent of never mentioning it. It explores themes of hypocrisy, homosexuality, madness and privilege, with the emerging AIDS crisis forming a backdrop to the book's conclusion.
The novel begins in the summer of 1983, shortly after Margaret Thatcher's second victory in the general election. Nick moves into the luxurious Notting Hill home of the Fedden family. The son of the house, Toby, is his Oxford University classmate and best friend, and Nick's stay is meant to last for a short time while Toby and his parents—Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, and Gerald, a successful businessman and just-elected Conservative MP for Barwick—are at their holiday home in France. Left at home with Nick is the Feddens' daughter Catherine (Cat), who suffers from bipolar disorder and whom the Feddens are reluctant to leave on her own. Nick helps Cat through a minor crisis, and when her parents return they suggest he stay on indefinitely, since Cat has become attached to him and Toby is moving into his own place.
Nick has his first romance with Leo Charles, a black man from Willesden a few years older than himself, whom he meets through a lonely hearts column.
As a permanent member of the Fedden household, Nick experiences for the first time the world of the British upper class, observing them from his own middle-class background. Margaret Thatcher visits the house for an evening party and Nick dances with her. A sexual relationship with the closeted Wani Ouradi, another of Nick's Oxford contemporaries and the son of a rich Lebanese businessman, illuminates the materialism and ruthlessness of 1980s Thatcherite Britain. Nick and Wani establish the "Ogee" media business to produce films and publish a magazine of the same name.
In 1987, Gerald is re-elected and conducting an affair with Penny, his parliamentary assistant. Polly, another of Nick's Oxford contemporaries, is elected for the first time.
Wani is dying from AIDS and Leo's sister visits Nick at the Ogee office to reveal that Leo also died from the disease. Nick and Cat discover Gerald and Penny's affair which leads to a media scandal, forcing Nick to leave the Fedden household.