Veronica "Ronnie" Miller is just shy of her 18th birthday, and that gap allows her mother to insist that she and her little brother, Jonah, spend the summer with the father who left them years earlier. When Ronnie arrives at her father's tiny beach house in North Carolina, she's in a funk, sure that she's about to waste an entire summer by staying with the parent she hasn't spoken to since he left. Of course, Ronnie and her mother are also out of sync these days. There's the matter of Ronnie abandoning her promising career as a pianist years ago when her parents divorced. There's also general maternal disapproval over Ronnie's friends, semi-Goth clothing and makeup, and her arrest for shoplifting.
While the story revolves around Ronnie, several characters relate their own tales. Steve, Ronnie's father, is eagerly and nervously anticipating the arrival of his children. Meanwhile, he plays his piano with emotional intensity. Once a professor at Juilliard, he quit his job when his own father died, in order to tour as a concert pianist. The touring had played havoc with his marriage and ultimately proved unsuccessful. Back home, in the town he grew up in, he is now on an emotional journey to discover his spiritual beliefs. He knows there's more to life than what he has experienced, and he suspects that being with his children will hold the key to the meaning of his life. Meanwhile, he continues his deep friendship with the pastor who taught him to play the piano as a child. Pastor Harris, who assumed a paternal role during Steve's childhood and adolescence, was injured when the church burned to the ground (a disaster that is pivotal to the plot). Steve has been constructing a replacement for the stained glass window ruined in the fire.
When Ronnie arrives at her father's, she immediately takes off, heading for a beachside festival, where Will, a handsome volleyball player, runs into her, spilling soda all over her blouse. Ronnie is already in a snit, and she is terse and irritable when Will tries to apologize to her. The next person she mee