Sometimes no father is better than a false father.
At nineteen, Jake Alderdice is shy, contemplative, and passionate about art. With the death of his grandfather, shipping magistrate Malcolm Alderdice, he becomes the new family patriarch and heir to Alderdice Shipping and Alderdice Luxury Liner. After two years of mourning, he is ready to add to the family honor just as all the Alderdice men have, but as an artist, not a shipping magistrate. His plans are delayed with his mother announces the family will be retreating to Waxwood, now a fashionable resort town favored by the San Francisco elite, for the summer, fulfilling her father's dying wish to "go back".
On the train, he meets Harland Stevens, an enigmatic but charming older man, who has come to Waxwood as chaperone and guide to his college-aged cousin Roger and Roger's friends. Mr. Stevens, or, as he tells Jake, "just Stevens", takes an interest in the young man's ambitions, and introduces him to the town's most prominent gallery owner. But when Jake takes his paintings for appraisal, the man delivers a fatal blow — Jake's mythology-inspired paintings are too original for the market of realistic landscape paintings favored by Gilded Age patrons.
Stevens seizes the devastated and wandering Jake and counsels him toward a more aggressive but moralistic path to manhood inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and Thoreau. Jake proves himself to be more studious and serious than Roger and his friends. Impressed with the young man's determination to take over his grandfather's business, Stevens introduces him to The Order of Actaeon, a secret society built upon those ideals favored by his idols.
But the path to emotional maturity and masculine identity is, Jake learns, a complex thing in the Gilded Age. Will his journey free him from the Alderdice family illusions, half-truths, and lies that have kept him a child, just as it did his sister Vivian's six years before? Or will it lead him into the world of Actaeon, where the hunter becomes the hunted?