Cleet Kinsolving returns from the Second World War with no prospects, few plans, and a deep and so far thwarted ambition: to make the best of himself, to live life on his own terms.
After an idyllic time working around airplanes in Kansas, Cleet is drawn, with deep reluctance, back to hi home town in Connecticut by an enormously rich and powerful family who have always magnetized everyone and everything around them. The Reardons live in a huge Victorian mansion, High Farms, and it is there that the family power challenges Cleet. For the Reardons, led by the son and heir, Neil, have always succeeded in twisting those around them to their own purposes: Cleet himself, Neil's wife, Georgia, bubbling over with the gaiety of riches she does not believe in; her sister Lynn, terrified of the Reardons and her own awkwardness; their ne'er-do-well parents---winning, alcoholic Ken and loud, warm-hearted Genevieve---who came to High Farms for the great annual ball, which is at the climax of the novel. Among the vast rooms and grounds of High Farms all these people struggle against a most common human dilemma: They live their lives out of season, like actors performing last week's play in front of this week's sets. In his struggle against the Reardon world, Cleet stakes everything he values on meeting the Reardon challenge.