On a cruise ship between Algiers and Venice Martin Boyne, a bachelor in his forties, befriends a band of ebullient, precocious children.
The seven Wheater stepbrothers and sisters, grown weary of being shuttled between mother and father 'like bundles', are eager for their parents' latest reconciliation to last.
They are kept together as a 'family' by the eldest, Judith, who takes on the role of protector.
Genuinely outraged at the plight of the 'homeless' and fought-over children, Boyne finds himself increasingly drawn to their enchanting, improper and liberating ways.
Among the colourful cast of characters are the Wheater adults, who play out their own comedy of marital errors; the flamboyant Marchioness of Wrench; and the vivacious fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, who captures Martin's heart.
With deft humour and touching drama, Wharton portrays a world of intrigues and infidelities, skewering the manners and mores of Americans abroad.