When James Stieff begins his first year at Oxford, he is beguiled by the promise "of quiet learning, of the life of the mind, of effortless superiority", but is soon isolated and out of his depth.
He is rescued by kind, attractive Jess, who introduces him to her coterie – acerbic Franny, dissolute Mark, and aloof Emmanuella. They all move into a cottage and spend their time reading, sipping champagne, and indulging in mild debauchery.
At first, one takes The Lessons to be an addition to that irritating genre: the chronicle of upper-middle-class angst. But as James's narration becomes increasingly evasive and unreliable, we come to realise that the novel is something more interesting: a study in self-delusion.