Fifty-seven-year-old Landon Carter narrates the novel, reflecting on events from 40 years in the past. The novel opens with a Prologue, in which the older Landon, living in the same North Carolina town as he did at the age of 17, stands near the Baptist church that figures prominently in the novel and gets himself in the mindset of his 17-year-old self. The story begins in 1958 and is, Landon tells us, both joyful and sad.
Seventeen-year-old Landon is a senior at Beaufort High School, which collaborates each year with Southern Baptist Church on a Christmas play called The Christmas Angel. The play, written by Reverend Hegbert Sullivan, the minister of the church, tells the story of a man who is so grief-stricken over the death of his wife (while giving birth to their only child that he is not much of a father to his child. An angel appears to the man, and she admonishes him to be a better father; she also performs a small miracle for the family on Christmas morning. The popular play, performed in the local playhouse, features seniors from the high school.
Landon's father is a congressman who spends most of his life in Washington, D.C., and is a stranger to his son. Landon's grandfather, who is now deceased, was a bootlegger and banker during the Great Depression, and he built the Carter family fortune by preying on the poor. One of Grandfather Carter's employees was Reverend Sullivan, who still harbors resentment against the Carters.
Like the narrative of The Christmas Angel, Reverend Sullivan's wife died during childbirth, and he has raised his daughter, Jamie, on his own. Jamie and her father are deeply connected, but Jamie is ostracized by her classmates because of her religious devotion, unflattering clothing and hairstyle, and tendency to help the downtrodden. Although Landon has known Jamie most of his life — as classmates and fellow church members only — he is surprised to notice at the beginning of his senior year that she is becoming a woman and could almost be considered attractive.
Landon wins the election and one of his responsibilities is attending the homecoming dance. Due to the fact he has just broken up with his girlfriend, he doesn't have a date and in a panic, he pulls out his yearbook and scans the pages for someone available. He finally decides on Jamie Sullivan, a junior, who is the minister's daughter, knowing that nobody else will ask her to the dance. Jamie wears old sweaters, plaid skirts and her hair up in a bun. She carries the Bible wherever she goes and believes that whatever happens in life is according to the Lord's plan. She is obviously not your typical high school student and not someone in whom Landon or his friends would be interested.
Both Landon and Jamie star in the school Christmas play that Jamie's father has written. The play details the personal story of his life after his wife's death and his search for love and the meaning of life within his daughter. Jamie plays the angel and Landon, the lead male role. Over time, in rehearsals and occasional talks together on her front porch, Landon starts to like Jamie. As a result, he becomes a better person, helping her do good deeds and accompanying her to the orphanage. The opening night of the play, he is amazed when he first sees her walk on the stage dressed as an angel, with her hair loose and flowing down her back. She glitters onstage and he falls for her true beauty.
Early in his senior year, Landon is elected student body president and must attend the upcoming Homecoming Dance. Mortified by the idea of attending without a date, Landon invites Jamie, who dresses nicely and does not carry the Bible she usually always has with her. The evening ends eventfully when Jamie and Landon find themselves cleaning up after and taking care of Landon's former girlfriend, who has gotten drunk.
Some weeks later, Jamie asks Landon to play the part of the father in the Christmas play; she has...