A scholar lost in chivalric dreams falls for a "knight" who is anything but noble.
Pia is a professor of medieval literature--brilliant, plain and lonely. Determined to avoid the fate of an unlived life, she can never quite find love. The guy in the next office, bookish mousy Ron, is in love with her but afraid of his rich wife. On holiday in Mexico she finds a bed partner but is unsatisfied. Her mentor Allan, a senior T.S. Eliot scholar, is gay and, since the death of his lover, in somewhat the same predicament.
She is seen as naive by her older colleagues, and in class she gets so wrapped up in knightly romances that her students--those who don't adore her--ridicule her. Even her daydreams have a King Arthur/green England feel, though she does show a certain self-mocking detachment from them. In fact her innocence is wearing a little thin: she could easily turn tough and bitter. As fall term begins, her life has reached a precarious point.
A new professor is given an office by hers--Graham, a rogue who can't keep a job. Because his salary is diverted into support payments he lives in his office, showers at the gym and borrows money from Pia. Though he owns no books he is a commanding if somewhat cynical teacher, easily dominating large audiences and fending off flirtatious students: such involvements have cost him jobs before. But when he meets Cathy, the gorgeous bored young wife of Vic, an alcoholic senior professor, he wastes no time, nailing her in the library, in his office, in Vic's office, in Vic's car--carrying on their affair even as he moves in with Pia. In her love for Graham Pia shows an unsuspected talent for beauty, but she is no match for Cathy; and she wavers, as she's always wavered, between wilful innocence and cold disillusionment, keeping faith with the former--as do we.
Meanwhile Allan, who has been resisting the advances of his student Sandy, relents and sleeps with him. Like everyone in Allan's course Sandy is under the gray spell of T.S. Eliot; and in Pia's classes he has absorbed the ethic of dying for love. When Allan breaks off the affair Sandy commits a theatrical suicide at the class Christmas party and enters the world of T.S. Eliot, invisibly visiting painful scenes in the lives of those he has left behind. Allan falls into depression and is fired.
Pia's attempts to save his career are sabotaged by Ron. A mature student, orphan and part-time stripper, Jo-Ella, having slept with both Graham and Ron, is now pregnant. She tells each of them, devastating their lives, but tells neither about the other. Desperate to defend his job and marriage, Ron makes a deal to side against Allan, fooling everyone but Pia, whose innocence is getting ragged.
When Vic comes home and finds Graham having Cathy on the floor, he hangs himself. Graham, sick with guilt and afraid for his job, must nevertheless go to the funeral home where Cathy, booze-and pills blurry, tries to seduce him in the bathroom as Vic's ghost looks on. In the viewing room Graham confronts a crowd of students and colleagues, but manages an arrogant speech.
Pia saves his job, even as she's leaving him. She is visited by Sandy's ghost a la Four Quartets and, inspired by what he says, and in protest against Allan's firing and her own prostration before Graham, leaves her position and goes to teach in Mexico. Now Graham has her apartment, tenure and a woman he no longer loves.
Allan gets over T.S. Eliot and begins anew, teaching night school. Ron, shaken by his divorce, finds renewal in marrying Jo-Ella. Graham goes after Pia who, with a new life and a new lover, rejects him. She has turned tough. But in a boating accident he risks his life to save her and her lover, and rescues their innocence.