After getting cursed, Sophie decides to make her future what she wants it to be. The eldest of three daughters, Sophie has to find her lot in life after being struck down with a curse from the evil Witch of the Waste. She does this by abandoning the hat shop in which she made beautiful, enchanted hats for free "as an apprentice" for her step-mother (who was getting rich off of her hats) and traversing the world.
As a sort of introduction: Sophie's father passes away and since all three daughters were in school, the step-mother is left with quite a bit of debt and pulls them all from their studies. In this time frame, the youngest daughter would be the one to make it big and start her own business and become rich, the middle daughter would be lucky to be married off and have children, and the eldest would be the one to inherit the family business. This is exactly what happens. Sophie doesn't realize that her talking to the hats as she makes them is enchanting them, and after a woman strikes it rich and marries a wealthy man thanks to one of Sophie's hats, the step-mother makes it rich but still doesn't pay Sophie. On a trip to see her sister, Sophie is timid and afraid of the people since it's a May Day festival and people are everywhere. She gets hit on by a charming and beautiful man but she shies away. Upon meeting up with her sister, Lettie, Sophie is scolded for not having more backbone and then it is revealed that Lettie isn't Lettie (the middle daughter), but Martha (the youngest daughter) who reveals to Sophie that her and Lettie changed places because Lettie is the most beautiful and the smartest and she should be the one to continue her education, and that Martha always wanted to get married off and have 10 kids and so her and Lettie decided to switch through a look-alike spell. Sophie is amazed and shocked and Martha reveals that her and Lettie always wanted to get Sophie out of that hat shop but didn't know how. After a few minutes, Martha is called away and Sophie heads home. She asks about a wage for working on these beautiful hats and is met with a yes but then is never given one. In a bad mood, Sophie yells at one customer and then when a very strange, eccentric woman comes into the shop, she criticizes Sophie's tacky hats with lame enchantments and curses her to be an old woman.
Sophie, not one for adventure in her youth, realizes she doesn't have to hold her tongue and doesn't care what she says or does now that she's an old woman through curse. She steals some food and leaves the hat shop. She doesn't make it too far into the countryside before she is picked up by a castle. A castle belonging to a mysterious wizard named Howl.
Upon entering the castle she meets an apprentice to Howl's named Michael who greets her half-heartedly and then yells at the fireplace about how he let in a witch. The fire responds! He claims that if she were evil he wouldn't have let her enter. Sophie throws some wood on the fireplace, not realizing it spoke, and starts to drift off to sleep whilst imagining that the fire has a face, when he speaks to her. This wakes her up and she realizes she's not dreaming and he must be cursed too; to which they mutually agree to help each other out of their situation. Calcifer, the fire, will break Sophie's curse if Sophie breaks his.
Eventually Howl returns and welcomes Sophie into the "family" as their new cleaning lady, and through the story begins to accept her more and more as one of them. Sophie cleans the entire house from top to bottom except for Howl's room which she is asked to avoid, and the backyard which she is scolded about the same.
As the story goes on you begin to see the faults in both Sophie's personality and Howl's, and you learn a bit more about Howl's origins and how he is slapdash and avoids any and all conflict.
You find out that the girl that Howl has been chasing after is Sophie's sister Lettie, not that anyone but Sophie herself knows that. She tells Michael it's her niece and then you find out from Lettie's teacher that she knew all along the sisters had changed places and you also find out that her teacher had also been Howl's teacher many years ago.
At one point Howl disappears into what seems to be an alternate world where magic doesn't exist, AKA what one can attest to be the truth Earth. His clothing changes and it's a much different time than the time that Sophie is living in and are introduced to Howl's family members.
Back in their rightful world, Howl has Sophie pretend to be his mother in order to shirk out of his duties of visiting the King since the King is turning all wizards and witches into army drones for the war that he is waging. She does so, but the King disagrees with Sophie and decides that Howl is just the man for the job of finding his missing brother (which is why the war had started was the King felt that the brother was kidnapped by a neighboring country). On the way to leave after meeting with the king, Sophie meets up with the Witch of the Waste who scolds her and then Sophie with her quick tongue decides that she'd rather keep Howl away from the witch and lies about where she is going. She ends up going back to the palace with the witch of the waste and accidentally has a second meeting with the king!
Howl starts to taking disguises and eventually has to move the house in order to keep everyone safe, but adds on new rooms in the process. The house he decides to move to is the hat shop that Sophie used to work at but he changes it into a flower shop.
As to not ruin the ending: The rest of the story is about the ever impending war between the countries and Howl, Calcifer, and Sophie trying to break each other's curses. You find out the curse that was the contract between Howl and Calcifer is also why the Witch of the Waste was so evil as she had a similar contract, and eventually the curse is broken. In the meanwhile Sophie meets up with her family and they all accept and understand she's been cursed, which is when the climax of the story occurs.
Best part of story, including ending:
I saw the movie first a long time ago as a child and I fell in love with everything about it. Upon realizing it was a book and that Diana Wynne Jones had written a few interconnecting stories involving this group of characters, I realized I had to read everything she'd ever written. I love this story because there is a very, very serious subplot of war and violence but it's shadowed for younger readers by the story of a young woman looking for her lot in life.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is definitely the one where you find out that the Witch of the Waste and another character are actually the same person and that it was only because they had split into two that the Witch of the Waste was so evil to begin with.
Opinion about the main character:
I love Sophie. I think she is a strong character that forgets she is strong until she becomes old and then she is cheeky and amazing. She's very vibrant for her old age and isn't afraid to speak her mind, and what a mind she has to speak!