Summer 1937. Hugh, Edward and Rupert Cazalet and their families arrive at their parents' country house, Home Place for their annual summer holidays. William Cazalet (the Brig) has decided to ask his son Rupert to join the family firm which Hugh and Edward currently help manage. Rupert declines the offer in order to pursue his painting, knowing that his new young wife Zoë will be angry that he's turned down the chance of a well-paid job. Twelve-year-old Clary goes missing after feeling left out by her two cousins, Louise and Polly. She is eventually found by her Aunt Rachel and Louise and Polly feel guilty. Hugh's wife Sybil gives birth to a baby boy. Polly's cat dies (unbeknown to her, he was viciously killed by Inge the German maid) and Kitty Cazalet (the Duchy) organizes a funeral for the children to bury him in the garden. The holidays end and the families return to London. Rumors of an impending war circulate. Edward meets Diana Macintosh and they begin an affair; she too is married. Edward takes his daughter Louise for dinner on her birthday. On their return home he becomes over-affectionate, trying to kiss her; she runs off, terrified, and locks herself in her bedroom.
By the time the family return to Sussex for the summer of 1938, Brig is secretly well advanced in his preparations for the war that seems to be looming. As ever, Brig and Duchy's only daughter Rachel is a sterling help around the house. Louise is very careful to avoid her lecherous father. To her dismay, Edward's wife Villy discovers she is pregnant. Feeling too old to have a fourth child, she visits her family doctor in London, but he refuses to help her have an abortion. While Villy is in their London house, Edward turns up unexpectedly with his mistress Diana in tow. An awkward moment ensues. Zoë's mother suffers a heart attack and she returns to London to nurse her where she becomes involved in an affair with her mother's doctor, Dr Sherlock. Brig decides that the family should all stay at Home Place permanently until the war situation is resolved. Miss Millament, the elderly governess, arrives from London. Diana has had a baby that she thinks could be Edward's. The Munich Agreement is announced and peace declared. To her horror, Zoë discovers that she is pregnant, probably not by Rupert.... Villy's baby is born. Eight months later, Rupert has joined the family firm. Zoë gives birth, but to her relief, the baby, who she knows is not Rupert's, dies.
It is summer 1939; war is imminent and is officially declared in September. The family has to come to terms with new ways of life, the blackout and other war necessities. Zoë discovers she is pregnant again (this time the baby is Rupert's). Rupert joins the Navy; Zoë and his children Clary and Neville are very upset. Sybil is becoming seriously ill, although she suffers in silence. Edward's long-term affair with Diana continues but is Villy suspicious? Louise makes a new friend, Stella, who comes from an intellectual socialist Jewish family. Rachel becomes closer to her female friend Sid. At the theatre with Stella's family, Louise spots her father in the audience with his arm around Diana. She feels sick and enraged. Her relationship with Edward deteriorates further. She learns that she has won a place at drama school and can't wait for this opportunity to escape him. Edward goes to Dunkirk and rescues some servicemen. Clary receives a telephone call from Rupert's Commanding Officer: Rupert is missing in the Dunkirk evacuations.
After the birth of their baby, Juliet, Zoë is told of Rupert's disappearance. Clary is distraught but refuses to give up hope. She tracks the route she thinks her father will have taken through France. Louise is enjoying life at her drama school in London but has frequent arguments with Villy whenever she visits Home Place. Villy's sensitive nephew, Christopher, comes to stay in order to escape his unsympathetic and authoritarian father, Raymond. Sybil is taken into hospital to have a tumor removed from her stomach. Although she knows she has cancer she refuses to worry anybody, including her husband, by telling them. Hugh also knows his wife is terminally ill but doesn't want to worry her by breaking the news to her. Clary writes to General de Gaulle for news of Rupert and eagerly awaits a reply. Sid and Rachel go to bed together, leaving Rachel feeling very confused and awkward afterwards. The Blitz begins and the timber yard is hit by a bomb; one of the workers is killed and much of the stock goes up in flames. At a society dinner, Louise meets Michael Hadleigh, a painter and naval officer, older than herself.
There is still no news of Rupert but Clary believes that he is alive. Convinced he is now an orphan, Clary's little brother Neville tries to run away to Ireland but doesn't get very far before a concerned lady takes him home. Zoë reads to patients at an RAF officers' nursing home where she forms a close friendship with, Roddy, one of the injured men. Louise takes a break from the theatre company she is working with to visit Michael and his mother for the weekend. She is impressed by their wealth. On her return, her father molests her again. She faces up to him about Diana and tells him that she saw him at the theatre with her. Sybil's health takes another turn for the worse. Polly tries to help her as she becomes weaker. Sybil and Hugh still cannot bring themselves to talk about her ailing health. Cousin Christopher, who is a pacifist, refuses to join up and is sent to work on a building site. His landlord throws him out without his papers. Polly overhears a hushed conversation between Villy and Hugh -- she's distraught to learn how very ill her mother is and that she doesn't have long to live.
Christopher has suffered a breakdown and is sent to a psychiatric hospital. He convalesces at Home Place. Both Hugh and Sybil separately confide in Villy their concerns regarding Sybil's condition. Diana tells Edward that she is expecting his baby. Zoë's friendship with Roddy, the RAF officer, grows. Sybil goes into remission and is once again filled with life and hope. Louise concerns herself with making Home Place look respectable, ready for Michael's first visit to the family. Sid also comes to stay and Rachel feels a little awkward about what has happened between them. Michael asks Louise to marry him. Dubois, a French officer who has been fighting with de Gaulle arrives unexpectedly. He has news of Rupert -- they were in France together some months earlier. Clary is overwhelmed with hope when he presents her with a letter that Rupert wrote to her at that time. Louise accepts Michael's proposal against her father's advice. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Brig confides in Duchy that he worries he may not live to see the war out. Sybil dies quietly: Hugh is beside himself with sadness, as is Polly. Louise marries Michael Hadleigh but there are two noticeable absences at the wedding: Rupert and Sybil. It is a poignant moment when Edward gives Louise away.
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