David Lurie is a Communications professor at Cape Town Technical University. He has been twice divorced, has one child, and currently spends ninety minutes of his Thursday afternoons with a prostitute named Soraya. After Lurie crosses the line by phoning Soraya at her home, he turns to one of his students to fulfill his desires. Lurie first notices Melanie in the university gardens and invites her to his home for wine and dinner. That very same night, Melanie is almost caught in Lurie's web of seduction until he quotes a clichÃ© Shakespeare line, and she quickly leaves. Lurie does not stop his pursuits there however. Over the weekend, he travels to campus and uses the University's records to find her address and phone number. Startled at his call, Melanie agrees to have lunch with him. They return to his house and have sex on the living room floor. Young Melanie is passive throughout the majority of the act but Lurie on the other hand attains sensory overload and falls asleep on top of her. The next class is awkward, and later that night Lurie spies on her while she is rehearsing for a play. The very next afternoon Lurie arrives at Melanie's flat, pushes himself in and carries her to the bed. She does not resist and asks him to leave after he is finished because her cousin is coming. She misses the mid-term the next day and arrives at his house sobbing that night needing a place to stay. Soon after, Melanie's boyfriend pays the professor a visit and events begin to snowball. Melanie withdraws from all her classes and a sexual harassment case is filed again Professor Lurie.
The investigation unfolds like a criminal trial with the judges being his colleagues on the committee. With Melanie's testimony already given, and with the press as well as activist groups are waiting outside, Lurie is given the opportunity to feign remorse and pledge to seek treatment; however, he refuses to be a spectacle. He is given no grace and is fired. His only comment to the press is that he was "enriched" by the experience.
A social outcast, Lurie visits his daughter, Lucy, on her farm in Salem. The first days are slow as Lurie adjusts to country life but Lurie soon finds plenty to occupy his time as he volunteers at an animal shelter and helps the farm-hand, Petrus. Although both her parents are professionals, Lucy has turned to the rural life and lives by selling the crops she has raised on the weekends and running a small kennel.
The peace of the country does not last for long. As Lucy and Lurie are taking some of the dogs for a walk, they encounter three Africans on the road who ask to use their phone. Lucy makes the mistake of putting the dogs up in the kennel and within moments the men have taken Lucy into the house and locked the door behind them. For moments, Lurie is unable to get inside and protect his daughter. When he finally does get into the kitchen he is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. Lucy is taken into a back room and raped by the three men. Before they leave, the robbers shoot the dogs in the kennel, ransack the house, set Lurie on fire, and steal his car. Lucy seeks help from one of her neighbors to call the police and gets her father to the hospital to treat his burns. For the night, they stay with the Shaws, who are friends of Lucy and run the animal shelter Lurie volunteers at. Upon return to the farm the next day, they are able to access the damage. The house is ransacked and all but one dog must be buried. Lucy reports to the police officer the stolen property and her father's assault, but says nothing about the rape.
Lucy goes through a period of depression after the attack. Since she barely leaves her bed, her father picks up a lot of the work around the house and is busy from sun up to sun down. Each time Lurie tries to talk to his daughter about the incident she either evades his questions or gives him a sharp reply. Lurie is enraged because the culprits have not been caught and Lucy fears that they may come back. Lurie however does not believe the robbery was simply an unfortunate event. He finds it suspicious that Lucy's farm-hand, Petrus, was no where to be found until a couple of days after the robbery. When Petrus returns, he is wearing a new suit and has bought building supplies for his house. Lurie believes Petrus intentionally left the house unprotected so that it could be robbed. When Petrus invites Lucy and Lurie to a party to celebrate his new acquisition of land, Lucy comes face to face with the one of her attackers, a mentally disturbed young man named Pollux. Pollux is related to Petrus' wife. Lurie immediately wants to call the police and have him arrested, but Lucy refuses and returns home.
Lurie becomes more and more involved at the shelter, even having a brief affair with Bev, the shelter owner. Lurie's main duty at the shelter becomes clear: when Bev Shaw gives a lethal injection to a dog, Lurie disposes of its body in the incinerator. Lurie does not realize how these killings have affected him until one day he must pull over on the roadside and cry.
Petrus meanwhile makes progress with his land. He has borrowed a tractor, plowed the land, and remodeled his home. Petrus' wife is expecting a child, and Pollux has come to live with them. After a false alarm that Lurie's car had been recovered by the police, Lurie confronts his daughter about the future. From his perspective, she has little other option than to move. It is unsafe for a woman to live alone on the farm unprotected, and Petrus cannot be trusted. He offers to send her to Holland, where her biological mother lives, with the money he receives from selling his house. Lucy is not receptive to this idea at all. She is determined to stay in Salem. Marking a breaking point in their father-daughter relationship, she writes him a note saying, "I cannot be a child for ever. You cannot be a father forever. I know you mean well, but you are not the guide I need, not at this time (161)."
Lurie returns to Cape Town, and on his way back he stops in George to visit Mr. Isaacs. Mr. Isaacs is not home, and his daughter, Desiree Isaacs, answers the door. Finding the young girl very attractive, Lurie does not stay long and instead finds Mr. Isaacs at his job. Mr. Isaacs is the principal of a middle school. Lurie attempts to explain himself in the office. Even though Mr. Isaacs is confused at his words, he invites Lurie to dinner with his family. The evening is clearly uncomfortable, but Mr. Isaacs finally gets what he is seeking: an apology. When Lurie returns to his house in Cape Town, he finds it has been robbed and vandalized. He returns to his office and finds his replacement at his desk. For a while, Lurie tries to get his opera on Byron off the ground but comes to an impasse. Life back in Cape Town is not the same; he finds he is an outcast. After being given an update on Melanie by his ex-wife Rosalind, Lurie decides to see Melanie perform in a play. During the play, Melanie's boyfriend sees Lurie in the audience and harasses him, telling him to stick with his own kind.
Lurie stays in contact with Lucy by phone, but senses that she is not telling him everything. After an ambiguous conversation with Bev Shaw, Lurie decides to visit his daughter. Lucy is pregnant from the rape and has made a conscious decision to keep the child. Lurie is shocked because he believed she had taken all precautions after the incident. Once more, he offers her an escape, but she will not run. Lucy decides her own course of action. She will sign over her land to Petrus (marrying him in a contractual sense) in exchange for protection and the right to remain in her house. Resigned, Lurie rents a room in Grahmstown to help his daughter at the market once a week and to dedicate himself to the disposal of the dogs' bodies at the shelter.