On July 5, 1906, Rucker Blakeslee announces that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson, a hat-maker at his store who is years younger than he. This news shocks his family, since his wife Mattie Lou died only three weeks earlier. Rucker’s daughters, Mary Willis and Loma, worry about what the gossips of Cold Sassy, Georgia, will think of their father’s impropriety. Will Tweedy, Rucker’s fourteen-year-old grandson and the narrator of the novel, supports his grandfather’s marriage. Will thinks Miss Love is nice and pretty, even though she comes from Baltimore and therefore is practically a Yankee. Will thinks that Rucker needs someone to look after him now that Mattie Lou is gone. On the afternoon Rucker announces his engagement, Will sneaks off to go fishing in the country despite the fact that he is supposed to be in mourning for his grandmother. He walks across a high, narrow train trestle and nearly dies when a train speeds toward him. He survives by hurling himself between the tracks so the train passes just overhead without actually touching him. Will becomes a sensation after his near-death experience, and the whole town comes to his house to ask him about the incident. Rucker shocks everyone by arriving with his new bride, Miss Love.
The people of Cold Sassy disapprove of Rucker’s hasty marriage, and rumors spread quickly. Will, however, spends a great deal of time at the Blakeslee house and becomes friends with Miss Love. Will soon learns that the marriage is one of convenience and that Rucker and Miss Love sleep in separate rooms. Miss Love tells Will that she married Rucker only because he promised to deed her the house and furniture. For his part, Rucker married Miss Love to save on the cost of a housekeeper. One day, Clayton McAllister, Miss Love’s former fiancé from Texas, shows up and tries to persuade Miss Love to leave with him. He kisses her, but Miss Love sends him away contemptuously. Miss Effie Belle Tate, a local gossip, sees the kiss and promptly spreads the news all over town.
Will and some of his friends make a trip into the country to pick up a horse for Miss Love, camping in the mountains along the way. When they return, Will and his father, Hoyt, try to convince Will’s mother, Mary Willis, to go on a trip to New York. Rucker has bought the tickets to New York so that Hoyt, who works for Rucker, can go to purchase new goods for the store. At first Mary Willis refuses to go because she is in mourning, but Will and Hoyt convince her that the trip will do her good. Right after Mary Willis changes her mind, Rucker decides to use the tickets himself to go to New York with Miss Love. Mary Willis is crushed, and her hatred of Miss Love increases. To take his and Mary Willis’s mind off the disappointment, Hoyt buys a brand new Cadillac and becomes the first motorcar owner in Cold Sassy history.
Rucker and Miss Love return from New York. They are now flirtatious and affectionate with each other, and Will wonders whether their marriage is becoming more legitimate. Rucker announces that he too has bought a car and intends to begin selling cars in Cold Sassy. Lightfoot McLendon is a classmate of Will’s who lives in the impoverished section of Cold Sassy known as Mill Town. One day Will takes Lightfoot on a car ride to the cemetery, where he kisses her. A nosy neighbor sees the kiss and tells Will’s parents. Outraged at Will’s association with common people, Will’s parents forbid him to drive the Cadillac for two months. Will gets around his punishment by driving Rucker’s car. One Sunday, Will, Rucker, and Miss Love take a day trip into the country, where Will gives them driving lessons. On the way back to Cold Sassy, Will crashes the car into a creek bed and damages the radiator. While they wait for a repair team to arrive, they stay with a family that lives nearby. That night, Will overhears Rucker tell Miss Love that he loves her and wants their marriage to be real. Miss Love declares that she cannot marry and that no man would want her if he knew her terrible secret. She tells Rucker that her father raped her when she was a child. Rucker says her past does not lessen his love for her, but Miss Love sends him away.
Eventually, Miss Love and Rucker fall deeply in love. Will’s uncle, Camp Williams, commits suicide, which begins a dark period in Cold Sassy. Rucker hires Will’s worst enemy, Hosie Roach, to work at the store in Camp’s place. Because of his new income, Hosie can marry Will’s beloved Lightfoot. A pair of thieves robs and beats Rucker. Although he recovers from his injuries, Rucker catches pneumonia. As Rucker lies sick in bed, Will overhears him tell Miss Love that God provides strength and comfort to the faithful in times of trouble. Miss Love tells Will that although Rucker does not know it, she is pregnant with Rucker’s child. Rucker dies shortly after he falls ill, but his message of faith in God gives Will strength to cope. Though the town and Will’s family do not accept Miss Love, she knows that they will all accept her child, and plans on staying in Cold Sassy.