LuLing Liu Young opens the novel by introducing herself, her two husbands, and her daughter, Ruth Luyi Young. When LuLing was six years old, Precious Auntie showed her a piece of paper with her family name written on it. Precious Auntie was scarred and disfigured and communicated with LuLing through a mixture of writing, sign language, and gestures. Precious Auntie was very close to LuLing and took care of her every day. On the morning that Precious Auntie shared her family name with LuLing, she took the young girl to pray and burned the paper with the name written on it. Now, LuLing is frustrated by her inability to remember the name. She invokes Precious Auntie’s help, revealing that she is Precious Auntie’s daughter, and that this family name is therefore her own lost name as well.
The narrative shifts to the voice of an anonymous narrator who explains that every August, Ruth Young loses her voice. This strange occurrence started when Ruth moved in with her partner, Art, and now reoccurs on every anniversary. To cope, Ruth voluntarily stops speaking for approximately one week and has come to enjoy this period of silence. It has now been nine years since she and Art moved in together, and Ruth spends this anniversary at Lake Tahoe with Art and his two young daughters, Dory and Fia. The trip does not go as well as Ruth hoped, and they return to their home in San Francisco in a state of tension. Late that night, Ruth finds herself unable to sleep or relax. In the clutter of her desk, she finds a document written in Chinese. Her mother, LuLing, gave her this document a few years before, explaining that she had been writing down the story of her life. Ruth has a limited ability to read Chinese, so it takes her a long time to make sense of the document, and she has not gotten far. She has gradually drifted away from the project, even though the first few lines alone already revealed information she had not previously known about her mother. Now feeling guilty, Ruth decides that she will hire someone to translate the document for her.
The next morning, Ruth contends with the cramped space of her apartment. She ponders her similarities to her mother now that she is in her mid-forties and is constantly stressed due to juggling her work and caring for her stepdaughters. She receives a call from her best friend, Wendy, who is eager to share her news that her elderly mother has married a much younger personal trainer. After the phone call, Ruth takes the girls to their ice-skating lessons. Ruth reflects on how she often feels ambivalent about her interactions with them and with Art, even though most of her friends believe she has a perfect relationship. Ruth and Art met almost ten years ago, when Ruth and Wendy enrolled in a yoga class. When Art showed interest in her, Ruth believed he was harmless because she thought he was gay. They began to meet regularly. Art worked in linguistics research, and Ruth was an editor and ghostwriter. Ruth discussed her previous serious relationship, which ended when she and her partner drifted apart and he took a job in New York without consulting her. Art shared that he was divorced with two young daughters, and Ruth realized that she was mistaken in thinking he was gay.
Back in the present day, Ruth continues with her domestic tasks and calls Wendy again to further discuss their mothers. Their discussion reminds Ruth that she is supposed to take her mother to a doctor’s appointment that afternoon. She is going to accompany her mother to the check-up because she has noticed small changes in her mother’s behavior and wants to see if there is reason to be alarmed.
The opening section introduces the three main female characters and hints at some of the similarities between them. LuLing has precise memories of events from her childhood, but some details, such as her family name, escape her. While LuLing cannot recollect the name that Precious Auntie shared with her, her memory implies that the name carries a kind of sacred power with it. Precious Auntie wrote the name down so that LuLing could create a visual memory of it, and this action becomes more significant when readers later learn that Precious Auntie’s ability to write was a prized skill that she passed down to LuLing at a time when it was not common for women to read and write. By watching Precious Auntie write down the name of her family, LuLing is introduced to a bit of Precious Auntie’s past and the pride she takes in her lineage. The fact that LuLing cannot recall the name implies that there has been some sort of fracturing or loss in her relationship to Precious Auntie.
LuLing introduces herself through a web of relationships and links to her past. Almost as soon as she states her name, she begins to describe the relationships and people she is intertwined with. LuLing does not see herself in an individualistic way; instead she defines herself according to her relationship with others. She feels a deep connection to her past, demonstrated as she articulates a sense of longing for the lost memory of the name and for an intimacy with Precious Auntie. LuLing’s concluding comment that she is Precious Auntie’s daughter introduces an element of suspense and mystery into the plot because it is unclear exactly why she refers to this woman as “auntie” and yet calls herself her daughter. Precious Auntie’s scarring also hints that some sinister event took place in her past.