When the story opens war is clearly coming. The Cazalets have shut up their London house and moved to Sussex at Home Place. We see events through the eyes of numerous characters, mostly family members but also the elderly governess, Miss Milliman, and various friends, acquaintances, and servants. This is a remarkable achievement; all the voices are rendered convincingly and individually, so that one is never in any doubt who is speaking or thinking.
Naturally, some of the characters get more attention than others, especially the adolescent girls, Clary, Polly and Louise. Anyone who has read Howard's autobiography, Slipstream, will recognise aspects of the author's personality and experiences in the girls; Louise, in particular, is to some extent a self-portrait. She is both precocious and naive, beautiful but lacking in self-confidence; she wants to be a famous actress and goes to acting school, but how much talent she really has is doubtful. All this is very like Howard's description of herself at that age, and Louise's shock when her father tries to seduce her is also something that Howard experienced. At the end of the book it seems likely that she will marry a man some dozen years older than she, although without really loving him—again something that Howard did. And the man in question is a naval officer and painter, again like Howard's first husband.
Much of the book is very funny, especially in the earlier part, but the tone becomes more sombre as the book goes on and the war becomes more obtrusive in the characters' lives, Clary's father goes missing in France; she insists he will return although no one else expects this.
This could be classed as almost, but not quite, a historical novel; the time it deals with is still, just, within living memory. In fact, one of the minor pleasures in reading is to note the differences between then and now; it is the unremarked facts of life that everyone takes as a matter of course that are so telling here. One of the characters has cancer but no one, least of all the patient herself, admits the fact, and it is never openly alluded to. Almost all the adults smoke, of course. At least two of them have false teeth in middle age; on going to bed a couple have a conversation interspersed with short silences while they take their teeth out to clean them. None of the children, even those in their late 'teens, has any knowledge of sex.
I was certainly left wanting to read the rest of the series.