Recently widowed and anxious to escape the clutches of her oppresively meddlesome in-laws, free-spirited Lilia Herriton travels to the hillside Tuscan town of Monteriano with her young friend Caroline Abbott. There she falls in love with both the countryside and Gino Carella, a handsome man considerably younger and much less wealthy than herself, and she decides to stay. Appalled by her behavior and concerned about the future of her granddaughter Irma, her strait-laced mother-in-law dispatches her son Philip to Italy to convince her to return home, but by the time he arrives Lilia and Gino have wed. He and Caroline return home, unable to forgive themselves for not putting an end to what they see as a clearly unsuitable marriage.
Lilia is startled to discover her desire for independence is at odds with Gino's need to be the unquestioned head of the household, and she is shocked when he becomes physically abusive in order to clarify his position. Their relationship becomes less volatile when Lilia becomes pregnant, but she dies in childbirth, leaving her grieving husband with an infant son to raise with the help of his aging mother.
When word of her death reaches England, Caroline decides to return to Italy to save the boy from what surely will be a difficult life. Not wanting to be outdone, or considered any less moral or less concerned than Caroline for the child's welfare, Lilia's mother-in-law sends Philip and his priggish spinster sister Harriet to Monteriano to obtain custody of the infant and bring him back to Sawston where he can receive what she perceives to be a proper upbringing and education. Everything about the journey - especially the heat, the uncomfortable accommodations, and her difficulty communicating with the locals - distresses repressed and xenophobic Harriet, but Philip begins to find himself attracted to everything that appealed to Lilia. He also begins to sympathize with Gino, leaving Harriet to take matters into her own hands and make a decision that leads to tragic consequences.