In the (fictional) small Irish town of Knockglen in 1950, an unlikely friendship blossoms between ten-year-old Bernadette 'Benny' Hogan - an overweight, big-hearted only child - and wiry orphan Eve, being raised by nuns in a convent after her disgraced late mother's upper-class family rejects her. The friendship endures into their teens, when Eve's inability to pay for university means their lives will take different paths, with Eve working as a servant in a Dublin convent to pay her way through secretarial school.
On their first day in Dublin, an accident brings the two girls together with students Nan Mahon and Jack Foley, and friendships are quickly forged. Eve is able to attend university after all when her cousin, Simon Westward, agrees to pay her tuition, and Benny surprises everyone by winning the heart of the handsome Jack. But things turn sour when Nan attempts to use Eve's family connections to her own advantage. When her plan to snare Simon goes drastically wrong, Nan is forced into a new plan - one which will break Benny's heart.
A key subplot is the future of the Hogan family business, Hogan's Gentlemen's Outfitters; thrown into turmoil when Benny's father dies. Having been forced to abandon his plan to marry into the business, the efficient but unpleasant Sean Walsh demands a partnership, but Eddie Hogan dies before the deed is signed. Benny reluctantly plans to honour the agreement; however, when she looks more closely at the business accounts, it reveals Sean may not be the model employee he seems.