A young boy adrift in a boat on a placid river; a grizzled old man sorting through piles, boxes and books. Which is truly Logan Mountstuart — and how did the boy become the man? Old Logan opens a journal dated 1926, and we are transported into the past as Logan, a young man studying literature at Oxford and aspiring to become a great novelist, vows to lose his virginity. He woos Land Fothergill, an equally ambitious "undergraduette" and part time labor-party activist, and fantasizes about Tess, a local girl who is sleeping with Logan's close friend and main competitor, Peter Scabius. When Logan graduates, he consoles his dying father by promising to work in the dreary family business. But instead he joins his other university friend Ben in Paris, where a chance meeting with Ernest Hemingway reignites his dreams of writing. And so begins a life of passion pursued, from first love to true love, escaping a suffocating earldom with his wife Lottie, reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, and reveling in domestic bliss with Freya in Battersea.
His dying father had counseled him to "enjoy good luck when it comes your way. It's all luck in the end." Logan has hurt and been hurt, seen much of the world, become a father himself, and still, he is so young. But will his good luck hold out?
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
On a calm river in Uruguay, a boy, Logan Mountstuart, sits alone in a boat and three older versions of him stand at the riverbank while an adult male voice asks, "Which life is truly mine?" The oldest of the men, grizzled and grey, moves about in an old country house, shifting stacks and piles, sorting and arranging them by some sort of logic. He finds a journal marked 1926...
Logan Mounstuart as a young man and aspiring writer attends Jesus College, Oxford, vowing as he writes in his journal to lose his virginity. His best friends Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping vow the same, but it is Peter who finds the best candidate, a beautiful stable girl, Tess. All three fall for her but only one can have her: Peter.
Logan is obsessed with Tess but pursues a clever Oxford "undergraduette", a labor party activist named Land Fothergill. Yet despite Logan's best efforts, Land rebuffs him. "Come and see me," she tells him, "when you're a real writer." When Peter's father forbids his son's involvement with Tess, Logan ends up sleeping with her, but their secret liaisons are short-lived as Peter and Tess announce that she is pregnant with Peter's child and they are planning to marry.
Old Logan considers a photo of Tess, then carefully folds it and places it on top of a book.
With Peter married and Ben gone to Paris, where he opens an art gallery, the newly-graduated Logan is urged by his sick and dying father to join the family business manufacturing corned beef. His father counsels him about life, saying, "It's all luck in the end." Logan promises to work at the company, but when his father dies, he visits Ben in Paris where he mingles with the European literati, a poet of the Cosmopolitan movement named Cyprien Dieudonne, and the American expat Ernest Hemingway. Logan has written an academic biography of Shelley but aspires to be a novelist, and his trip ignites a passion that rules out corned beef.
He submits his Shelley bio to a literary agent and sets to work on a novel, The Girl Factory, writing in his new apartment and dating Land, who deigns to see him now that he is "serious." Accompanying Peter to a shooting party in Norfolk, he meets his host's sister, Lady Lottie Cassell, and learns that his agent has sold his novel. He is enjoying his good luck per his father's advice as his book is released to popular success, and is so flush with happiness that he hasn't noticed Land's lukewarm return of his affection. When he proposes to her, he is bitterly disappointed when she refuses.
Depressed and despondent, he recovers sufficiently to begin seeing Lottie, and the two begin an improbable romance that very quickly leads to marriage. Though he values none of the trappings of aristocratic society, he is expected to adhere to its unwritten rules and submit to a lifestyle he soon finds oppressive.
He is an older Logan now, a vigorous man not yet 30, and Lottie is spoiled and entitled, a child. When their baby Lionel is born, the clash between Logan and Lottie's domineering, aristocratic father only worsens their strained relationship.
For Logan, whose second book (The Cosmopolitans, inspired by the poet Cyprien Dieudonne) has flopped, a writing opportunity abroad is just the escape he desperately needs. But when his passport and wallet are stolen in Portugal and he goes to the British Consulate, he meets an intoxicating woman with whom he experiences an immediate connection, Freya Deverall. Logan and the beautiful and bright young journalist for the BBC soon begin a passionate affair in London.
Logan and Lottie live largely separate lives, and when they do reunite, money worries add to the suffocation Logan experiences with his wife. He manages to scrape together enough money to take Freya to Biarritz, where he reunites with his successful friend Ben and the poet Dieudonne, and encounters the strange Prince of Wales and his companion Wallis Simpson on the golf course, allowing them to play through.
The Old Logan is clearing the meadow, dragging branches to a pile as if to construct a bonfire.
In London, he dines with his old friend Peter Scabius and meets Ian Fleming, a rather mysterious chum of Peter's. Peter has just released a successful mystery — another notch against rival Logan, who has not yet produced a second novel. Peter confesses that he has been cheating on Tess, saying he envies Logan's marriage. But returning to his wife and the son he hardly knows, Logan can hardly wait to escape and quickly accepts another position abroad, reporting on the Spanish civil war.
Old Logan pours gasoline on the wood and strikes a match, igniting the bonfire.
Arriving just before Logan boards his train to leave for Spain, Freya reveals that she is pregnant, that she is having the baby, and tells Logan not to come back to them unless he will stay, forever. Logan is simultaneously joyful and heartbroken at the failure of his marriage and what this new development means.
In Barcelona, awaiting the opportunity to get to the war's front lines, Logan reencounters Ernest Hemingway. The American rescues him from the endless tedium and the ache of missing Freya, and puts him in touch with Faustino Angel, who takes Logan to the Aragon front. There, Logan learns firsthand the complexities of the war and the confusing mass of factions who must fight together. He also learns of its anguish and horror during a shell attack. In the bunker, Faustino asks Logan to collect something that belongs to him in Madrid. Logan emerges after the attack to corpses littering the trenches, one of whom is the lieutenant whom he'd interviewed moments before.
Safe in Madrid, he picks up Faustino's package accompanied by a drunken Hemingway, with whom he'd shared shots of absinthe while discussing relationship woes. Yet calling Faustino at the provided number, he learns that his friend has been executed as a Fascist spy. Recoiling in fear, he realizes that he must get out of there and back to Freya. He returns to her for good.
Determined to be civilized towards Lottie in his divorce proceedings, Logan is punished for his actions by a settlement restricting his visits with his son Lionel to once a month. But at his new suburban home in Battersea, Logan finds domestic bliss with Freya. Holding his newborn baby daughter for the first time, he utters, overwhelmed, "I didn't know it was possible I could be this happy."