It is the summer of 1946 --- one year to the week that the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki --- and three 17-year-old English girls sit in a Yorkshire graveyard contemplating their future in a world so recently torn apart by war. The girls, Hetty, Una, and Lieselotte, have gathered in the churchyard, having just heard the news that they've each received full state scholarships to University in October --- Hetty to the University of London, and Una and Lieselotte to Cambridge. Having reached maturity during the lean, uncertain years of World War II, and still living on food rations and clothing coupons, the girls look forward to a bright and promising future far away from Yorkshire but each inwardly wonders if she is ready to let go of the familiarity of home and face the challenges that await in a society struggling to rebuild itself from the ground up. In the months before they set off for college, each girl will face one last transformative lesson that will prepare them for their new life.
Hester "Hetty" Fallowes was always thought to be the least likely candidate for scholarship --- never considered clever by anyone and labeled as an "unsteady, self-conscious, show-off" by teachers, Hetty seemed destined to replicate the stifling, domestic life led by her mother Kitty --- a life dominated by religious fervor and gilded society luncheons. Kitty Fallowes had raised her daughter to strive after the stringent goodness that she felt she herself had failed at. Under her mother's guidance, Hester "was to be Kitty perfected." Hetty's ambitions are suddenly raised when at age 16 she meets and falls for intellectual "older man" Eustace. Twenty-one-year-old Eustace is a soldier in the Army Pay Corp who has already secured a place at Cambridge upon his is release from the army. Desperate to impress Eustace, and determined to join him at university, Hetty throws herself into her studies and soars to the top of her class. When she discovers Eustace has been writing intimate letters to her mother on the sly, a confused Hetty sets off on her own for a three week retreat in England's Lake District where she hopes to gain independence and insight into her own expectations for herself.
Unlike her best friend Hetty, quiet and confident Una Vane always excelled in school. The daughter of a prominent doctor, there was never any doubt that Una would find success in anything she put her mind to. In her final year of school Una surprises everyone by taking up company with Ray, a sharp-faced railroad employee from the wrong side of the tracks who shares Una's love of cycling and, like Una, is "economical with words." As Una and Ray's cycling trips take them to increasingly secluded destinations along the countryside, Una discovers that there just might be much more to life than academic success.
Lieselotte Klein is by far the most complex of the three girls, and her journey perhaps the most important. Since arriving from Hamburg on the Kindertransport in 1939, she was always considered by her classmates to be "too alarming, too mysterious, and too brilliant to be anybody's friend." Up until the day she is awarded the scholarship that unites her in a common bond with Una and Hetty, no one ever really paid any attention to her. When just days after receiving her award Lieselotte is suddenly and inexplicably sent to live with an elderly couple in London, who tell her they have adopted her, Lieselott