The setting is a well-to-do vacation colony on the shores of Lake Erie, the time 1945, during the final stages of World War II. Charlie, a developing rebellious fourteen-year-old, is summering with his mother and sister (his father is fighting in the Pacific) before going off to an expensive boarding school in the fall.
Although he intended to spend the summer loafing and socializing with his friends (such as Ted), the need for spending money forces him to take a job as handyman for an iconoclastic, bohemian art teacher, Anna Trumbull, a former member of the "upper crust" who has lost both her fortune and her regard for the ideals of her upbringing. Sensing a kindred spirit in Charlie, she tries to stretch his mind by teaching him painting and sculpture - and exposing him to "radical" ideas about life and love that, in time, persuade Charlie to reject the notion of going back to school.
The result is a family crisis and, more specifically, a showdown between Anna and Charlie's conservative mother, a clash of philosophies that raises as many questions as it answers and, in the end, stimulates the self-awareness that will shape the man Charlie is destined to become.