The protagonist of the novel. Ruth is a middle-aged woman who has a generally happy life but is often left wondering why she does not feel entirely satisfied. Ruth focuses on making everyone around her happy, but she is disconnected from her own ambitions and desires. She carries a legacy of pain from a difficult relationship with her mother and also has an ambivalent relationship with her identity as a Chinese-American person.
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The mother of Ruth Young, and one of the novel’s main characters. LuLing is an elderly woman who is often stubborn, cranky, and melodramatic. She is set in her ways and thinks that she has all the right answers. Over time, LuLing emerges as a more sympathetic character because some of her behavior is explained by her diagnosis of dementia, and her handwritten document reveals that she has lived through many tragic events.
The mother of LuLing and the grandmother of Ruth. Precious Auntie is an intelligent and charismatic woman who experiences many tragic losses, including the losses of her father and first love. The impact of her grief leads her to attempt suicide twice, and she is terribly scarred and unable to speak. Precious Auntie is resilient and willing to make many sacrifices to care for her daughter, but she is also held back by shame and loss.
Ostensibly the younger sister of LuLing, but actually LuLing’s cousin. GaoLing has a comfortable life as the matriarch of a prosperous multi-generational Chinese-American family. Unlike LuLing, she is not haunted by her past life in China. However, she also has secrets and lived for years with a new husband without disclosing that she already had a husband in China.
Ruth’s partner. Art is a sensitive man and caring father. He loves Ruth but also takes her for granted. Art upholds an American outlook and value system, and this sometimes makes it hard for him to relate to Ruth’s Chinese-influenced upbringing.
The first husband of LuLing. Kai Jing is a gentle and thoughtful young man. He is always loving toward LuLing and treats her with respect. Even though he and LuLing only spend a short time together, he gives her a lifetime of loving memories.
The second husband of LuLing. LuLing does not reveal much about Edwin’s personality, but he had a bright future when he died tragically young. LuLing often states her belief that Edwin was smarter and would have been more successful than his brother.
Art’s daughter. Ruth acts as a stepmother to Dory, and they have a stable, if not particularly close, relationship.
Art’s other daughter. Ruth acts as a stepmother to Fia, and they have a stable, if not particularly close, relationship.
Ruth’s longtime friend. She knows Ruth well but also has trouble understanding Ruth’s choices because she had a different upbringing.
GaoLing’s husband and Ruth’s uncle. Edmund was always considered to have as much potential as his elder brother, but once Edwin died, Edmund takes on a leadership role in the family. He is a quiet and mild-mannered man.
Art’s ex-wife. Unlike Ruth, Miriam is artistic, charismatic, and often draws attention to herself. She maintains a fond and close relationship with her ex-husband.
A young man who owns a property that LuLing rents when Ruth is a young girl. Lance is a bold and assertive man with a reputation for philandering. He becomes vengeful and dangerous, and is sexually inappropriate toward Ruth.
Lance’s wife. She is maternal and loyal, and she becomes protective of Ruth. Dottie is also a woman with her own secret because she is unfaithful to Lance.
LuLing’s biological father and the youngest son of the Liu family. He is a handsome and seductive man who immediately wins the affection of Precious Auntie and persuades her to become lovers before they get married. Baby Uncle is independent, assertive, and loyal.
LuLing’s great-grandmother, and the elderly matriarch of the Liu family. Great Granny has a lot of power within the family, and she has a kind heart. She insists on caring for Precious Auntie after Precious Auntie’s suicide attempt, and devises a plan that allows Precious Auntie to continue to care for her daughter.
Precious Auntie’s father and Ruth’s great-grandfather. He is an intelligent and skilled man who has a great deal of respect for tradition. He gives his daughter a powerful sense of belonging and treats her as the equal of a man.
A distant relation of the Liu family who lives in Peking and often takes a role in arranging marriages.
The woman LuLing grows up believing to be her mother, and the wife of the eldest Liu brother. Mother is a superstitious and unforgiving woman. She is never happy that Precious Auntie remains part of the family, and she blames Precious Auntie for all the misfortunes the family encounters. She is very shrewd and intelligent, and good at handling a crisis.
A prosperous coffin maker from the same town as the Liu family. Chang is a cruel and unscrupulous man who hurts and exploits others to get what he wants. His legacy of abuse leads to financial instability and drug addiction within his family.
Chang’s son and GaoLing’s first husband. Fu Nan is a lazy and cowardly man whose life revolves around his opium addiction. While he is a greedy bully, he lacks the intelligence or motivation to be a real threat to anyone.
The American missionary who runs the orphanage where LuLing ends up living. She is a kind and brave woman who tries to provide good care to the children.
An elderly Chinese-American scholar who translates LuLing’s manuscript so that Ruth can read it. He is intelligent and compassionate, and he is so moved by the story of LuLing’s life that he falls in love with her.
LuLing’s first father-in-law. He is a well-educated and caring man who is loving and nurturing toward both his son and LuLing. He treats LuLing as a daughter even after the death of his son.