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Paddy Murnaghan meets by chance his future wife, Grace on a Saturday night in Cambridge. He is studying Engineering she English Literature. When they meet again he outlines his ambitions for himself and his future family during a punt on the river Cam. Paddy is a self-proclaimed king who wants Grace to be his queen. Paddy is the captain of the Cambridge University rugby team but he gets badly injured during a match. Grace nurses him back to health but the injury ends his rugby career. A gifted mathematician, he diverts all his energy into his engineering studies. Grace falls pregnant and quits her course whereas Paddy graduates with a first-class degree.
Paddy joins his father’s successful construction company and pressures Seamus into diversifying into property development. Seamus dies of a heart attack during the wedding reception of Paddy and Grace. The former isn’t greatly affected by his father’s demise and takes over the family firm which he then transforms into Murnaghan Property Development. His family, and his company, grows rapidly and they move into a beautiful, spacious home in Hampstead. Paddy has a fling with a journalist who interviews him for a profile in the trade press. Paddy grieves for his mother despite the fact that she never forgave him for his role in Seamus’s premature death.
The development projects get progressively bigger and bigger. A worker dies when his crane collapse during the building of the Murnaghan Tower. When the huge project is completed, Paddy’s health suffers greatly. The Murnaghans struggle to conceive their seventh child. Paddy falls for their Scandinavian nanny, Sophia and they have a daughter, Annabel. When Grace gets to know about this situation she refuses to share Paddy with Sophia. The Murnaghans separate but eventually Paddy’s love for his children draws him back to Grace and their family home. Paddy and Grace conceive their seventh child. Paddy takes a sabbatical from work and takes a close interest in the raising of his family believing that he will be judged by the worldly success of his progeny. He struggles when one of his sons develops paranoid schizophrenia. One of his daughters, Kathy begins a same-sex relationship with a model. Their affair stirs up anger and emotions flowing from an apparent bout of childhood sexual abuse by Paddy.
Paddy plays the perfect paterfamilias during a big family Christmas dinner. Kathy and others confront Paddy with accusations of child sex abuse which he strongly denies. Grace struggles with the allegation but decides to remain loyal to her husband. The Murnaghan family begins to fragment. Grace convinces Kathy not to get the police involved with her allegation. Paddy again suffers from ill health and admits to Grace that he abused Kathy during a hunting trip. Grace must decide whether or not she can forgive Paddy.