Karim is seventeen years old and ready for anything when Dad invites him to accompany him to an "appearance" at Eva Kay's house. There, Karim watches Dad lead affluent Londoners in guided meditation and yoga. Karim watches Dad and Eva have sex in the garden and then has sex himself with Eva's son and his idol, Charlie. Though Mum is very unhappy when Dad and Karim return home, it doesn't stop Dad from inviting Karim along to the next appearance. However, as Dad is about to begin, Mum's sister, Jean, and her husband, Ted, come through the door. Karim reasons that Jean, who's nasty and nosy, is surely here to investigate Dad. Karim meets a girl named Helen but thinks only of Charlie.
At Jean's insistence, Karim goes to visit her and Ted. He stops to visit Helen on his way but her father, whom Karim calls Hairy Back, sets his Great Dane after Karim. The dog mounts Karim and ejaculates on his jacket, and Karim is in no mood to listen to Jean when he arrives at her house. Jean insists that the Buddhist nonsense must stop. A few days later, Ted arrives at Karim's house. He barges in on Dad and begins to relay Jean's message himself, but Dad grabs Ted and insists to Ted that he works too hard. Ted starts crying, and Dad declares that he "released" Ted. Karim consults his best friend, Jamila, about his family's drama. He finds that Jamila is embroiled in drama of her own: her father, Anwar, is refusing to eat until Jamila agrees to an arranged marriage, something that Jamila doesn't want to do. They call a meeting after school one day and Helen invites herself along. Helen insists they consult Dad about the matter, but Dad only tells Jamila to follow her heart.
Jamila chooses the arranged marriage, and Karim and Helen accompany her and Jeeta to pick up Changez from the airport. It takes Anwar a while to realize that Changez will be a useless son-in-law: he only has one working arm and doesn't seem to know how to work. Karim finds Changez endearing. After Changez's welcome party, Dad takes Karim to Eva's house to inform him that he's leaving Mum for Eva. Karim, distraught, calls Jean. When Karim arrives home, Ted and Jean show up and pack up Mum and Karim's little brother, Allie. Dad and Karim return to Eva's house.
Eva signs Karim up for college classes with Charlie, but Karim doesn't attend most of them. He spends much of his time with Changez and Jamila, where he introduces Changez to sexy novels. Jamila refuses to sleep with Changez and continues her solitary studies in her bedroom, while Changez is purposefully bad at helping Anwar out in his grocery store. Changez becomes more and more sexually frustrated until he finally confronts Karim and asks his opinion on the matter. Karim insists that Jamila will never sleep with him, and Changez makes Karim take him to a prostitute named Shinko. Several weeks later, Changez asks Karim to cover for him while he visits Shinko. Karim and Jamila have sex while Changez is gone, but Karim wakes to find Changez at home. Karim feels ashamed and as though he's let everyone down. He subsequently fails all his exams by not showing up for them, much to Dad's disgust.
Eva begins employing Ted to help her renovate her house, and Karim helps with the hard labor. When the house is finished, Eva decides she wants to move to London proper. She tasks Karim and Dad with packing up Charlie's room, and Karim wonders how Charlie manages to be so charming. Soon, Karim wrangles a job ferrying Charlie's equipment to and from gigs. Charlie is cruel and treats Karim horribly, and Karim takes his opportunity to tell Charlie that he's talentless. Eva soon purchases a rundown flat in what she believes is an up and coming neighborhood. Karim spends his time exploring the city. One night, he goes out to a bar with Charlie. Charlie gets extremely drunk, but the band goes on before Karim can get Charlie out of the bar. The band is a punk band, and Karim and Charlie are dismayed at the anger and violence of the band and the fans. However, Charlie is intrigued. He runs away from Karim, runs into traffic outside, and gets in a car with some other punks.
Before Eva begins renovating her new flat, she throws a flat-warming party. Her guest list is composed mostly of aspiring actors and directors, specifically a director named Shadwell. Karim makes up with Changez at the party before Eva forces him to speak with Shadwell. Shadwell offers Karim an audition, much to Karim's surprise. Eva helps him prepare for weeks. Though the audition goes well, Karim is concerned when Shadwell tries to speak to him in Punjabi and Urdu, languages he never learned despite Dad being Indian. Shadwell is putting on The Jungle Book and wants someone authentic to play Mowgli, though he's skeptical when he learns that Karim has never been to India. Rehearsals initially go smoothly, and Karim makes friends with a Welsh Trotskyite named Terry. Things sour, however, when Karim gets his costume: a loincloth and dark body paint. Shadwell then bullies Karim into speaking with an exaggerated Indian accent. Karim is hurt when none of the other actors, including Terry, stand up for him.
Mum, Ted, and Jean attend opening night of The Jungle Book. They're proud of Karim's performance and go out dancing afterwards. Dad, Eva, Changez, and Jamila attend the next night and are much less impressed: Dad insists that Kipling is racist and Jamila is disappointed that Karim played into racist stereotypes. The critics, however, love the production and it attracts a great deal of attention. One night, the cast learns that the famous theatre director Matthew Pyke will be in the audience. Terry explains that Pyke has taught all over the western world and is the extremely important. After the show, Karim and Terry join the other actors at a bar. Pyke brushes off others but invites Karim to have a drink with him. He offers Karim a role in his next play, which makes Terry extremely angry. When Karim tells Shadwell about the role a few days later, Shadwell warns Karim that Pyke will destroy him.
Karim is immediately attracted to Eleanor, a beautiful redhead in Pyke's play. Pyke leads his actors in games and improvisations, though some of his games bother Karim. Karim becomes suspicious when Pyke tells the cast that he's going to make predictions about who in the cast will sleep with whom. After a few weeks, Pyke sends the actors out to come up with characters based on real people, which his writer will then write a play about. Karim goes to research Anwar, but finds him in a sorry state. Anwar has never fully recovered from his hunger strike, has become extremely devout, and taunts white boys in the street. Karim begins spending his evenings keeping Eleanor company. She refuses to have sex with Karim, which Karim finds endlessly frustrating.
When Karim presents his Anwar character to the cast, Pyke insists that Karim must start again. He wants Karim to portray a black character, but not play too heavily into stereotypes. Karim goes to Changez. Though Changez initially agrees to allow Karim to study him, he soon changes his tune and becomes distraught talking about the fact that Jamila still refuses to sleep with him. Karim is distraught at the realization that Pyke will fire him for not being able to portray an appropriate character and bikes to Eleanor's flat immediately. He finds Eleanor ironing shirts and crying, and puts her to bed. When he tries to leave, Eleanor invites him to have sex and their relationship begins. Karim presents his Changez character to the cast not long after, and Pyke thinks it's perfect.
One afternoon when Karim's bike chain snaps, Pyke offers him a ride home. Pyke talks in the car about his experiences at orgies with his wife, Marlene. Not long after, he offers Karim a gift: Marlene wants to have sex with Karim. Karim isn't flattered but doesn't feel he can refuse Pyke's invitation to bring Eleanor to dinner. On Saturday, Karim and Eleanor dress up and head to Pyke's house. Dinner itself is boring, but afterwards, Marlene explains why Eleanor is so depressed: her last boyfriend, Gene, was black and committed suicide because he couldn't handle the daily racism. Karim struggles having sex with Marlene and discovers that Eleanor has wanted to have sex with Pyke for some time. Pyke puts his penis in Karim's mouth, but Karim bites him. Karim and Eleanor never talk about their evening with the Pykes.
During a rehearsal break Karim spends time with Jeeta and Jamila. Anwar is even worse and ends up in the hospital after trying to attack Changez in the street. He dies a week later. Jamila informs Changez that she wants to move to a commune, and they decide that Changez will go with her. Karim helps them move in and discovers he likes the commune. Jamila soon becomes pregnant by Simon, a man living at the commune.
Pyke's play is a success, but Karim's happiness is marred when Jamila calls to tell him that the National Front attacked Changez. She invites him to accompany them to a protest. Karim agrees but instead he spends the day of the march following Eleanor to Pyke's home. He confronts her on the train on the way home, and she insists she'll continue sleeping with Pyke. A week later, when Jamila, Simon, and Changez attend the play, Jamila is incensed that Karim didn't come to the march. Terry is also there that night and tells Karim that the Party wants money from Pyke and Eleanor. Karim agrees and Pyke is fully willing to write Karim a check.
At a lavish party after the New York opening, Pyke reveals that he orchestrated Karim's entire relationship with Eleanor. Karim drunkenly tries to punch Pyke. Charlie, who lives in New York, rescues Karim and invites Karim to live with him. Karim enjoys living with Charlie so much that he decides to stay in New York, but after six months, he realizes that he's outgrowing Charlie. Charlie begins to chafe under the constant public scrutiny that comes with fame, and he hires a dominatrix to humiliate him. Karim watches the dominatrix work and realizes he doesn't care about Charlie anymore. When Karim returns to London, he auditions for a role in a major soap opera and gets it.
Karim visits Dad and Eva to share his news, but Dad makes Karim feel like a child. Karim then goes to Mum's house, where he learns from Allie that Mum has a much younger boyfriend. Allie suddenly seems interesting, and Karim brings up their parents' divorce. Allie is angry at Dad, but deflates when Karim insists that he doesn't understand. Later that night, Karim goes to the commune. Changez lets Karim in and explains that Jamila is still angry that Karim didn't show up to the march. Karim falls asleep behind their sofa, but wakes up when he hears Changez and Jamila talking. Changez is still very upset that Jamila won't sleep with him. The next day, Karim goes to visit Dad again. He tells Dad about Mum's boyfriend and notices that Dad finally seems to understand that his divorce with Mum is final. Later that night, Karim takes everyone out to celebrate his new job. Eva and Dad announce they're getting married.