The marriage of Boston debutante Alice Holmes Fry and Hugo Vandekar, in 1934, is marred by her averson to sex. They purchase a magnificent estate called Ashdown, where Alice gives birth to Fern, a child she shuns. During World War II, Ashdown is temporarily converted into a convalescent home for officers, one of whom becomes Alice's pet patient and father of her illegitimate son, Richard. The Vandekars' strained relations worsen when Richard (Alice's favorite) marries nymphomaniac Diana Brayley, and Fern (Hugo's favorite) weds struggling artist Brian Kiernan. Eventually, Diana's infidelities destroy Richard, and, after the family discovers her shocking liaison with Brian, she dies suddenly at Ashdown. Years later, Nancy, Diana's daughter, warily investigates her mother's death, unearthing the surprising identity of her killer.