We can sum this book up for you in three little sentences: Kathy is a carer. Then she becomes a donor. Then she "completes." The end.
Okay, there's a bit more to Kathy's life than that. Well, a lot more. And fair warning: this book jumps back and forth and back again in time, so it can be tough to keep it all straight. Hold on to your hats.
The book starts out in England in the 1990s. Kathy H., our narrator, is a thirty-one year old woman who spends her days as a "carer." Her job involves traveling between recovery centers and helping "donors" to recuperate after giving a "donation." She doesn't tell us what these mysterious donations are, but they don't sound like much fun.
Working as a carer gives Kathy a ton of time to reminisce about Hailsham, the place where she grew up. This job also gives her opportunities to reconnect with Ruth and Tommy, her old pals from Hailsham.
Here's the thing: Hailsham was an awesome joint and all (who doesn't love drawing classes and playing football?), but it's also filled with a fair bit of mystery and misery. The students never leave the Hailsham grounds and are kept in the dark about what's in store for them in the future. What they do know is that they are special, and that it's super duper important for them to be creative. So Hailsham students work a lot on poetry and art with the hope that Madame, a lady who lives outside Hailsham, will select their art pieces for her Gallery.
Being creative is a problem for Tommy, who just isn't that artsy. Instead, Tommy becomes a social outcast and throws a lot of tantrums. Even when he's as old as thirteen. Super awkward. But for the most part, Kathy and Tommy have a special bond and she's the only one who can really connect with him during his rough patches.
And then there's Ruth. Kathy and Ruth have a relationship that is, well, rocky, to put it nicely. They repeatedly hurt one another's feelings, and then try to find some gesture to make amends rather than talk about their problems directly. Yeah, it's a roller coaster up in here.
While at Hailsham, Kathy's most prized possession is a cassette tape with songs by Judy Bridgewater. While she's alone in her dorm room, Kathy loves listening to her favorite song, "Never Let Me Go." And when the song has the same title as the novel, you just know it has to be important. Anyway, one day Madame catches Kathy listening to this song while rocking an imaginary baby. For some reason, Madame sobs and Kathy gets freaked out. Sadly for Kathy, she soon loses this precious tape. Not to worry; it won't be gone for long. She'll eventually find it again in Norfolk.
During their teen years at Hailsham, Kathy and her friends become big daydreamers. They start to wonder about their future lives. Miss Lucy, the newest guardian, puts a stop to these daydreams pronto. She tells Kathy and her friends that none of them will become actors because they were all created to give away their vital organs one day. Yikes! That information could have been useful a little bit ago. But somehow, this news isn't all that shocking for Kathy, who feels like maybe she's known this information all along on some level. By the way, somewhere in the midst of these daydreams and revelations, Tommy and Ruth start dating. Bet you didn't see that relationship coming.
After Hailsham, Kathy and her friends are sent to live in the Cottages. The Cottages aren't as swanky as Hailsham, but Kathy and her pals have lots of downtime to watch TV and take road trips. One day, Kathy, Ruth, Tommy, and their two slightly older chums, Chrissie and Rodney, take a trip to Norfolk. They sketchily scope out a woman who works in an office building that they think might be Ruth's "possible" (the normal woman she was modeled from). What's this all about? Well it turns out that Kathy and her friends are clones. Wait, what? Yeah, Kathy decides to wait until halfway through her story to casually drop that info on us. Gee, thanks for the heads up, Kath.
So Kathy and her crew are clones, but that's not even the most unbelievable thing that's about to go down. While they're in Norfolk, Tommy and Kathy find another Judy Bridgewater cassette tape. Kathy's got her musical mojo back. And then some. After a tiff with Ruth, Kathy decides she's ready to move on from the Cottages. So she's the first of the trio to leave and start her work as a carer.
After years as a carer, Kathy decides that it might be best to see Ruth again, before it's too late. So Kathy becomes Ruth's carer, after Ruth has given her first donation (ouch!). They work to rekindle their friendship. One friendship-building task involves taking a trip with Tommy to see a stranded boat. On this road trip, Ruth makes a big confession: she kept Tommy and Kathy apart, and she's super sorry about it. To make-up for her selfishness, Ruth gives her friends Madame's address. She wants them to go to Madame and see if they can get a deferral, so that they can spend more time together before Tommy gives away any more vital organs.
Now things start to get really tragic. Ruth "completes" and Kathy becomes Tommy's carer-and-girlfriend. They visit Madame and have a chat with her and Miss Emily, their old head guardian from Hailsham. Sadly, they learn that deferrals never existed. So they just have to live the life that was set out for them: grow up, become a carer, donate, complete. Depressing? Yes. C'est la vie.
Much to our frustration, Tommy and Kathy accept their fate. When Tommy gets the order for his fourth donation, the lovebirds say goodbye to one another, and Kathy leaves without much hullabaloo. At the very end of the novel, Kathy tells us that Tommy has completed and that she has received her summons so she'll become a donor soon.
See what we mean? Totally tragic.