The Gereth residence at Poynton Park contains a priceless collection of art and furniture, most procured and maintained by Mrs. Gereth; but when Mr. Gereth dies and their son Owen inherits the estate, a subtle battle over the fate of these objects is waged between mother and son. Adela Gereth dedicated her life to the acquisition and arrangement of beautiful art and artifacts, with which she has carefully decorated her grand estate at Poynton Park. Her marriage was not the most passionate or dedicated, but this side project gave her purpose and pleasure. But when her husband dies, the estate, with all its carefully curated possessions, passes to her son Owen.
This wouldn't be a problem if Owen was as aesthetically aware as his mother, but Adela knows how ignorant her son can be and so strives to find him a wife who shares her own artistic sensibilities. She enlists the help of her new friend, Fleda Vetch, an intelligent young woman who understands her plight. Adela doesn't seem to realize Fleda would be a perfect choice for Owen, or that she is in fact already in love with him.
But unfortunately for Adela, her careful maneuverings produce precisely nothing. Owen simply takes matters into his own hands. He ends up marrying Mona Brigstock. Mona can only tally up the monetary value of the estate and all its priceless artifacts, without any view to anything deeper, and is exactly the kind of crass woman Adela feared would end up with control of Poynton Park. Mona's no fool, though, and insists to Owen that his mother leave before she agrees to go through with the marriage. Owen complies and his mother leaves Poynton – but not before absconding with numerous choice pieces. Mona is outraged and demands their return. Owen, caught between his mother and future wife, asks Fleda to act as arbiter. Fleda is still in love with Owen, and emotionally torn in her own way, but she agrees to help.
Only after Fleda comes to negotiate does Adela finally grasp that Fleda is in love with her son. Knowing that Owen might share that sentiment, she uses this information to get Fleda and Owen to declare their true feelings. Fleda, though, is too honorable to force Owen to ditch Mona, and politely waits for Mona to realize that she's lost and back out on her own. Adela also thinks the battle is over and prematurely returns all the "stolen" items to Poynton Park. Mona takes advantage of this and immediately forces the malleable Owen to marry her.
Fleda and Adela are devastated, but console themselves with their shared residence at a nearby estate. While on his honeymoon, Owen writes to Fleda to give her permission to go to Poynton and take a special item of her own choosing, to remember him by. The novel ends with her returning to Poynton. But when she arrives, she discovers to her horror the house, and all its precious antiques, devoured by flames.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's not exactly the most magisterial of James' novels, but the well-honed, high-class frivolity of the mother and the ending's perfect poetic justice makes it one of his more fun reads.
Best scene in story:
The final scene where Fleda arrives at Poynton Park and realizes that everything that they spent the whole book fighting for has been lost in a single fire is just too perfect a commentary on the nonsense of it all.
Opinion about the main character:
Adela Gereth is outstandingly ridiculous. Her admiration for her physical possessions waffles between genuine (misplaced) love and deranged fetishizing, but even so, she never once becomes unbelievable.