Never Let Me Go—set in England in the 1990s—is narrated by Kathy H., a former student at Hailsham, and now a “carer” who helps “donors” recuperate after they give away their organs. The novel opens at Hailsham, an idyllic community flanked by football fields and filled with students and kind “guardians,” like Miss Geraldine, Miss Lucy, and Miss Emily (Emily is also the headmistress). Kathy becomes close friends with Ruth and Tommy—the former the head of a clique of fellow students; the latter a rather strange boy given to temper tantrums. Art classes are very important at Hailsham, and Tommy is chastised by his fellow students for rarely placing works of art in the special Gallery selected by Madame, whom the students believe to be the head of school. During their time at Hailsham, the students room with one another, submit art to Exchanges (which other students then receive), and buy small items at periodic Sales occurring on the school grounds. Kathy buys a cassette tape by a woman named Judy Bridgewater, which contains a song entitled “Never Let Me Go.” This song stirs up strong emotions in Kathy, and one day, she is “caught” by Madame, while in her dorm, dancing slowly to the music, and holding an imaginary child in her arms. Kathy notices that this dancing causes Madame to cry, and she is initially confused by this, although she realizes later that she cannot have children, and that perhaps Madame and the other guardians feel sorry for the students for this reason.
As the students grow at Hailsham, they learn that they are clones, and that they will leave Hailsham and soon begin “training” as “carers” and then as “donors.” Donors give their organs away, one by one, for the benefit of non-cloned humans, and “carers” help the donors during these difficult surgeries. Miss Lucy, another of the guardians at Hailsham, tells Tommy when he is young that his art-class exercises do not really matter, and she tells the assembled Hailsham students, when they are older, that they must prepare for the harsh realities of their caring and donating lives. But the students are already aware of their fates—they seem to accept them with eerie placidity—and they are shocked to learn, later, that Miss Lucy has left the Hailsham faculty abruptly. Miss Lucy disagrees strongly with the “abstract” methods—i.e. learning to give away art the way they will eventually give away their organs—that the school uses to inform the clone students of their fates.
Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth—the latter two having become a couple in their last year at Hailsham—leave the school and begin a residency at the Cottages, where they read, pursue romantic relationships, and socialize further, before leaving for their training as carers and donors. The three friends, and Chrissie and Rodney, older Cottage students, take a trip to Norfolk one weekend, because Rodney believes he has seen a “possible” clone parent for Ruth there. The trip is a bitter one, however. The “possible” is not in fact Ruth’s original, and Ruth becomes angry and informs the group of what they already know—that their clone originals are taken from the “lowest rungs” of society. But Kathy and Tommy, in a second-hand store in Norfolk, stumble upon a copy of the Judge Bridgewater cassette that Kathy believed to have lost forever at Hailsham. Although it isn’t the same exact cassette, Kathy wonders if there isn’t some truth to the students’ long-held idea that Norfolk is a “lost corner” of England, where people go to find things they have misplaced elsewhere.
Kathy realizes that she is in love with Tommy, but Tommy and Ruth continue their relationship, even after Ruth belittles Tommy for his new drawings of “small animals.” Tommy informs Kathy that he is making the drawings in the hopes of having art to submit to Madame’s Gallery, since he has a new theory: Hailsham students may apply for a deferral of their caring and donating duty if they can prove they are in loving relationships, and they do this by showing Madame that their art “matches” the art of their loved one.
Ruth finds the idea ridiculous, however, and Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy later leave the Cottages to begin work as carers. After many years, Kathy becomes a carer for Ruth, and Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy go on an outing to see an abandoned boat in a far-off English field. During this trip, Ruth apologizes to Tommy and Kathy for “keeping them apart,” and urges Kathy to become Tommy’s carer, so that the two of them might them apply to Madame for a deferral. Ruth gives Kathy and Tommy Madame’s address and then dies after her second donation.
Kathy and Tommy become lovers and, after a while, visit Madame in a seaside town, where they have a conversation with her and Miss Emily about the “truth” of Hailsham. Miss Emily reveals that Hailsham was an attempt to reform England’s treatment of clones, but that Hailsham has now been shut down due to lack of funding. Miss Emily also tells them that the deferral for loved ones never really existed, although this idea has long been a rumor among students.
On their trip back to Tommy’s treatment center, Tommy gets out of the car and has another temper tantrum in a field, because he is deeply frustrated at his inability to live with Kathy as a loving couple. Tommy later dies after his fourth donation, and Kathy transitions into her job as a donor. At the end of the novel, though she rues the loss of Ruth and Tommy, and misses Hailsham, Kathy notes that she will always have memories of these people and places—which she does not worry about losing, since they remain vivid to her.