Rusty van Wolkenten, an artist in her late thirties living with her husband, Sam, in San Francisco, is returning home to a small plantation on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. She is seeking answers from the three people who know her best: Fred, her irascible but loving father who can hurt or edify with just the choice of a word; Clarice, her not-entirely-of-this-world mother whose biggest decision each day is which one of her colorful umbrellas to choose, and the laconic but wise, Willie Belle, the family cook who has been with the van Wolkentens since Rusty's birth. Rusty, a woman of the Old South, whose life has been tempered by living in the diversity of the Bay Area, is struggling with who she is, and whether, ultimately, her life has any meaning at all.
Her first night on the island is full of inevitable mixed messages and lack of effective communication. Fred is shocked by her coming clear across country for just a weekend, Clarice is perennially detached, and Willie Belle remembers her old hurts.
The family is distracted by the impending arrival of a "disturbance" off the coast, threatening to become a full hurricane. Fred and Rusty attempt a heart-to-heart. She fears she is not good enough as an artist to have taken the risk she did by giving up her career. He fears he will not be good enough to take care of his dear wife, Clarice, whose needs have become a 24 our job. Rusty has her concerns, Fred has his. Their paths and attention diverge.
The House of Puppets is a richly evocative novel about trust and betrayal, and discovering one's own true path.