When her master's degree in the history of punishment proves useless, our narrator resorts to taking a job as a receptionist at the stodgy Academy of Material Science in London and, indeed, finds herself in the middle of a novel. Since most overeducated office workers do something else to save themselves from dying of boredom (like reading Remembrance of Things Past), she uses her time to write about her frustrating current romance. But her endeavor is thwarted at every turn by the flood of phone calls, packages, and visitors that punctuate a receptionist's day (nagging interruptions that are acknowledged with special icons on the page). Another obstacle to her literary ambition is that the object of her lust has insisted she keep their affair secret. Referring to him only as "the man who mustn't be mentioned," she attempts to tell their story from the beginning but increasingly finds herself distracted by events in the present.. As time passes, the characters in her office begin to intrigue her - in particular a shy, elderly engineer named Philip Scroll. Despite its initially dull appearance, the workplace becomes ever more captivating, dragging the narrator away from her love story and forcing her to consider all sorts of vital topics, from the history of the telephone to neo-Victorian office hierarchies (made most apparent during lunch hour) and the meaning of celebrity. The future of her new romance - not to mention the fate of her current live-in boyfriend - and the plot of her novel hang in the balance as she is consumed by the bizarre workings of the Academy.