Roy, an up and coming executive from the small town of Eloe, Louisiana, and Celestial have been married for a year and a half. The two live in Atlanta, Georgia, where Celestial grew up. A burgeoning artist, Celestial models much of her work on her husband’s likeness and has found success making artisan dolls. Together with Roy, she plans to grow her art into a larger business.
Over Labor Day weekend the couple visit Roy’s parents, Olive and Big Roy, in Eloe. Celestial is apprehensive about the trip; Olive has always believed that her daughter-in-law’s comparatively cosmopolitan upbringing will cause issues for the couple. Celestial, meanwhile, believes that the only thing that will make Olive love her is if she has a baby. Celestial’s apprehensions prove apt when Olive is dismissive of her artistic success. Celestial defends herself by showing Olive one of the dolls she was commissioned to make by the mayor of Atlanta. Olive marvels at its likeness to Roy but feels that Celestial is rubbing her success in her face.
Later, at the motel room Roy has booked for himself and Celestial, Roy reveals that Big Roy is not his biological father but rather adopted him as a baby; Celestial is offended that he hadn’t shared this information with her sooner. After an argument, Roy leaves the room to get ice and runs into a woman with her arm in a sling. He helps her bring ice back to her own room before returning to Celestial, who has just hung up with her best friend, Andre—incidentally, the one who introduced her to Roy in college. Celestial and Roy talk more calmly about Roy’s parents and then make love. That night, the police break down the door to their room while they are asleep and arrest Roy, accusing him of raping the woman he assisted earlier. The couple hires Uncle Banks to defend Roy, but he is sentenced to twelve years in jail.
Celestial and Roy write frequent letters to each other, in which Roy tells Celestial about his cellmate, Walter, and expresses how difficult life in jail is. He adds both her and Andre to his visitors’ list. When Celestial visits Roy, however, they experience the strangeness of being monitored during their time together. Roy later questions Celestial about the pregnancy she aborted after Roy was arrested, wondering if they made the right choice. Celestial tells Roy that she is even sadder about their lost child than he is and asks him to stop questioning their decision. She’s focused on her work, hoping to sell the poupées, or baby dolls, to young black girls as much as to art collectors. When Roy continues to question her, however, Celestial reveals that she was pushed into an abortion in college after having an affair with a professor. It was then that she transferred to Spelman College and also learned to make baby dolls as a way of assuaging her guilt.
Over the years Celestial opens a retail business with her father, Franklin Davenport, and has a solo show in which she exhibits all of the work made in Roy’s likeness. Her fame grows after she wins a contest through the National Portrait Gallery and is featured in an article in Ebony Magazine. The contest-winning doll looks like baby Roy but wears prison johns and was inspired by a time she saw a little boy on the street and worried that he, like Roy, was destined to be imprisoned because of his skin color. Roy worries about why she didn’t mention him in the Ebony article, wondering if she is becoming romantic with Andre. Celestial defends herself, saying the story of Roy’s incarceration is too personal to share. Roy apologizes, but Celestial doesn’t write back. Roy then writes to Celestial to share that he has discovered that his cellmate is actually his biological father, and that he understands her earlier sense of betrayal upon discovering he hadn’t told her about Big Roy. Celestial finally writes to ask Roy’s forgiveness, saying she was at first angry, but then just busy, and that she’ll visit soon. Roy says something seems different about Celestial, asking if she is seeing someone else, and also shares that Olive has lung cancer.
Olive dies, and after attending her funeral with Andre Celestial writes Roy to tell him she can no longer be his wife; seeing the dedication Big Roy displayed towards Olive only highlighted the weakness of their own marital connection. Roy writes back to Celestial asking her not to come visit him. Over the next few years, Celestial writes Roy on special occasions but Roy doesn’t return her letters. At the five-year mark of his sentence, however, Roy writes Celestial to tell her he’s being released and that he believes there’s a reason she hasn’t yet divorced him.
Andre, who reveals he has been involved with Celestial for the past three years, says he has loved her since they were children. Though he was genuinely happy when Roy and Celestial married, he won’t apologize for their current relationship. He comes home one day soon after Celestial has finally agreed to file for divorce from Roy only to find out that Roy is being released. Andre proposes to Celestial, despite her insistence that she no longer believes in marriage. She ultimately agrees, and they announce their engagement at the Davenports’ house on Thanksgiving.
Big Roy meets Roy at the prison on the day of his release, asking Roy if is sure that Celestial is still his wife. Roy isn’t, and prays that Celestial will take him back. In Atlanta, meanwhile, Celestial thinks back to seeing Roy four years after college in New York. Roy remembers the same night, during which Celestial first told him about her dolls. He’d then chased down a man who’d burglarized Celestial’s apartment. The thief kicked Roy in the mouth, causing him to lose a tooth.
Flashing back to shortly before Olive’s funeral, Andre thinks about how Roy asked him to take his place and act as pallbearer for Olive’s casket. After the funeral, Andre and Celestial went to a bar to drink. Celestial made an advance on Andre, but he told her she was drunk and that they made a conspicuous pair in the tiny town. They then returned to their hotel, however, where they finally consummated their love.
Back in present-day Eloe, Roy runs into Davina Hardrick, a classmate from high school. She invites him to dinner, makes a feast for him, and they sleep together. Later, Andre calls Big Roy’s house and is surprised to find that Roy is already home. He tells Roy it will be a couple of days before he can come pick him up to bring him to Atlanta, and Roy realizes he’ll need to get to Celestial himself to see if he can save his marriage. He borrows Big Roy’s car and withdraws money from a savings account Olive had made him while he was away. Roy figures out that Celestial told his parents that his cellmate was his biological father. Big Roy tells Roy that the news killed Olive.
Overwhelmed with the situation before him, Andre talks to his father, Carlos, despite the emotional distance between them. He tells Carlos about being engaged to Celestial, and that Roy has been released from prison. Carlos, at first judgmental, eventually expresses support for Andre and tells him that he’ll need to accept the punishment Roy gives him for trying to steal his wife.
On his way out of town, Roy stops at Olive’s grave to weep and then at Walmart to tell Davina he’s leaving. Andre arrives in Eloe with the intention of telling Roy that he and Celestial are together, but that they still intend to help Roy get back up on his feet. When he arrives to Big Roy’s house, however, he finds out Roy has already left. Big Roy tells Andre not to call home, so that Celestial can figure out her feelings for Roy without Andre’s influence.
In Atlanta, Celestial finds Roy in her house. Roy asks if she still loves him and she can’t answer. When he asks if she’s with Andre, she says the answer is both yes and no. He continues to try to convince her that he’s the same old Roy, eventually leading her to the bedroom. When Celestial asks Roy to use a condom, however, he is offended and goes to sleep in the sewing room with Celestial’s dolls. Sure that Celestial has rejected him, he calls Davina and tells her that he remembers her son, from whom she is estranged, from prison. In Eloe, Andre Big Roy tries to convince Andre that while he wants Celestial, Roy needs her.
In the morning Roy tries to appeal to Celestial again, eventually asking if he can gather his things. He sifts through boxes Celestial has packed but can’t find the tooth he lost on their first date. Overwhelmed with emotion, he begins attacking Celestial’s car, and then attempting to chop down the old hickory tree in front of the house when Andre arrives. The two men try to talk about what’s happened, but Andre insists that none of the details matter, only that he and Celestial are together now. Roy and Andre fight. Celestial threatens to call the police, but Andre talks her out of it. Roy bangs his head against the hickory tree and Andre goes back into his house, while Celestial tries to keep Roy awake, worried he’s given himself a concussion.
Celestial goes to Andre’s house in the middle of the night to tell him she has to try to be with Roy again. Roy wakes up to a Celestial who is tender to him. He asks for his tooth, which she retrieves from a box in her dresser. As they eat breakfast, Roy asks why Celestial told Olive about his biological father being his cellmate. Celestial claims that the news didn’t kill Olive as Big Roy claimed, but rather released her from her worry about Roy because she knew there was someone taking care of him in jail. When Roy calls Davina to wish her a merry Christmas, she asks if what they have is something or nothing. Roy responds that while he is still married, what they had is something. Celestial puts on lingerie to seduce Roy, but he can sense that she fears him now and that what they had is no more. Celestial tells him she tried, and they turn out the light, unable to fall asleep.
In an epilogue, Roy writes Celestial to tell her he’s signed the divorce papers. Celestial writes back to say that she’s pregnant with Andre’s child, and asks for his prayers. Roy responds that he and Davina are getting married and that he and Big Roy have gone into business opening a barbershop together. He tells Celestial his life is good, though a different good than he expected.