The book presents the story of a middle-aged woman of a mixed blood, Jamie Crawford, returns to the city of Eatonville she once lived in. Her neighbour and old friend Pheoby wonders why she looks so troubled and where were she been for all that time. Jamie decides to tell him the whole story of her life divided by four parts, each part telling about her attempt to find her true love.
The idea of finding love hit Jamie’s head when she was a little girl. She saw a beautiful peach flower and the bee, descending to this flower. This image became the metaphor of ideal love Jamie dreamt of later on.
After her mother ran away, Jamie was raised by her grandmother named Nanny. Nanny loved Jamie very much, but her worldview was deeply affected by her previous slavery. Nanny thought that the only way to protect еру young girl from the hazards of life is to marry her off to the wealthy, respected and reliable man. Nanny considered Jamie’s romantic dreams about love a childish nonsense, that will neither feed the girl nor protect her. The love for Nanny was the source of recklessness and social issues such as unwanted pregnancy or staying with the wrong man for the sake of feelings. The desperate attempts of earning Nanny’s warmth were the first story of love Jamie didn’t have.
Nanny found an old potato farmer named Logan Killicks and arranged his marriage with Jamie. This marriage failed miserable: the practical and dull Logan treated the girl like a working horse or a shepherd dog, without any feelings towards her. He did care for her in his own way - Jamie was his property after all - but it was the complete opposite of her romantic image of family life. Soon Jamie met another man, the silver-tongued Joe Starks who courted her the way she dreamt of. The young woman still hesitated, afraid of the divorce and disgrace that could follow, but when Logan casually threatened Jamie to kill her for disobedience, she understood that she really didn’t want to be another tool on his farm and fled with Joe.
Joe took her to Eatonville, the city that was populated mostly by black people. That protected Jamie from social shaming in her native town and also granted her a lot more comfort. Before she was a half-blood black enduring all the superstitions of that time, but in the Eatonville Jamie was a respected woman and later, after officially marrying Joe, a mayor’s wife.
However that life also had its own drawbacks. Joe still had a thoroughly patriarchal worldview. He believed that a good wife of a mayor should stay at home and not socialize with “common people”. In his vanity Joe often said that he knew better what is good for Jamie and ordered her to stay at home and engage in household more to not have time to think about other people. While Logan saw Jamie as a working horse, for Joe she is more of a precious ornament, suitable for man of his status.
But still life with Joe, despite the lack of true love, was way better than her previous marriage. Jamie lived with him for around twenty years, but their difference in age became more and more prominent. Self-righteous Joe accused Jamie of behaving too childish for her age, so that he felt himself old near her. That was the last straw for the woman and she lashed on him, telling him everything that she thought of him, questioning his manhood and deeply insulting him. That was too much for Joe and soon he fell ill because of stress. Even on his deathbed he didn’t want his wife to visit him, but Jamie eventually broke into his room and they had a final talk.
As a widow, Jamie enjoyed the life of a free and wealthy woman, refusing all the suitors. She decided to belong to herself only and not to make the same mistake again. Some time after she met an ordinary worker, much younger than her, named Tea Cake. From the very first meeting Jamie understood that Tea Cake was the true love she was searching for all her life. She starts dating him despite all the gossip and disapprovement that emerged in Eatonville. To the further shock of the locals, the mayor’s widow remarried after only nine months from Joe’s death, sold all his possessions and moved with Tea Cake to his town, Jacksonville.
This marriage also didn’t go smooth at first. They both became extremely jealous, once Tea Cake even stole the money Jamie had after selling Joe’s property and left her alone, in the unknown town, thinking that he have married her only for money. Tea Cake returned later, deeply ashamed and asking to forgive him. He said that it was just a moment of weakness and the couple decided to share all their worries and experience from now on. Finally, they settled down near the Everglade fields, working together as bean pickers and socializing with Tea Cake’s friends, funny and open-minded migrants.
The disaster came from the sky. A great hurricane stroke Everglade, killing everyone who wasn’t able to run fast enough. Tea Cake and Jamie were ones of the last to leave the fields and the hurricane almost caught the couple. Tea Cake rescued his wife from an aggressive stray dog blocking their way to safety, but was bitten himself. For a short time, it seemed that nothing bad really happened and they both were safe.
However, the dog was infected by rabies. Short-tempered and jealous Tea Cake turned into a real paranoid maniac. While the illness progressed, he became more and more aggressive and once, when he tried to attack Jamie, the woman had to shoot him to protect his life.
Jamie was immediately put on trial and accused of murder. The jury consisted completely of white males and the poor woman was completely devastated but still, by some miracle, she was proven innocent.
Right after that, Jamie sold whatever she had left after the hurricane and moved back to Eatonville. Everything in Everglades reminded her of her happy life that was no more and Jamie couldn’t stand the pain of it.
This is the last part of story Jamie tells to Pheoby and he is deeply impressed by the life and experience of that woman. After finishing the tea, Jamie goes to her room and finally feels at peace with herself before going to sleep. Her quest for the true love is finished.