Louisa Durrell's life is in meltdown. Her four unruly children are going off the rails. 11-year-old Gerald is about to be thrown out of school, Larry, the eldest is a would-be novelist but the worst estate agent in Bournemouth and the middle two, neurotic Margo and gun mad Leslie are hitting adulthood like a car crash. It is 1935 and a woman's options are limited. Much to Larry's bemusement she takes his flippant advice and makes a radical change by whisking her family away to the sun drenched island of Corfu. A cheap and untamed paradise - which also happens to have no electricity.
Having barely enough money to survive they find themselves relying on charismatic local, Spiro Hakaiopulos. Spiro not only finds them a ramshackle house to live in, he also installs Lugaretzia as their home-help who is very cheap but a complete hypochondriac.
Despite the beauty of the island, the children soon fall back into their old ways. Corfu provides the perfect inspiration for Larry's writing and he exacts his revenge on Leslie who insists upon shooting at anything and everything, driving the family mad. Margo takes advantage of the idyllic weather but soon runs into trouble with a local monk and has to use her feminine guile to win him round. Words fail Margo however, when Larry's wealthy, party loving friends Max and Donald arrive and she finds herself instantly besotted with Max.
For Gerry the island is his paradise. Rich in exciting species he happily spends his days exploring with Roger the dog and his new found friend and kindred spirit, Dr Theodore (Theo) Stephanides. Much to the family's bewilderment the terrace is soon filled with an eclectic menagerie of animals (pelican and tortoise) and insects (wolf spider), which Gerry eagerly brings home to study.
Believing their mother needs a love interest, Larry invites Captain Creech for dinner. However, his suitability for Louisa's affections quickly proves doubtful when it appears that Larry has brought an old sea dog to the table.