Summary: Chapter Two

Ruth goes grocery shopping and reflects on her childhood filled with frugality and practical necessity. Back at home, she tries to focus on her work even though she feels unmotivated. Over the past fifteen years, she has contributed to almost thirty-five books, mostly in the realms of self-help, wellness, and New Age philosophy. She sometimes feels sad that she does not get much credit or recognition for her work, even though LuLing takes pride in her daughter’s career. Ruth does not like conflict or confrontation, partially because her mother often gets in arguments and fights. She has also often been embarrassed by her mother’s poor English skills. She finds LuLing’s difficulty with English surprising because her mother’s sister, GaoLing, came to America at the same time but speaks much better English. Because household tasks take longer than expected, Ruth is running late when she goes to pick up her mother. LuLing is healthy for a 77-year-old woman and does not go to the doctor frequently, but Ruth is concerned that she has recently grown forgetful. However, it is hard for Ruth to gauge changes in LuLing’s moods because LuLing has been angry and depressed for all of Ruth’s life and has regularly threatened to commit suicide.

LuLing lives in a modest home with a tenant who rents the downstairs unit from her. Ruth is concerned when she arrives because the tenant comes out and complains about LuLing behaving strangely and abusively toward her.

LuLing is a skilled calligrapher and painter. When Ruth was a child, LuLing worked as a teacher’s aide and supplemented her income by doing Chinese calligraphy on signage for local businesses. LuLing tried to teach Ruth to write in Chinese and told Ruth about how she was taught to write by a woman named Precious Auntie, who had cared for her as a child.

Ruth now observes her mother showing signs of confusion: she has misplaced her purse and cannot remember the correct time of the appointment at the doctor’s office. Ruth reflects on the complex relationship between her mother and her aunt. The two women are only one year apart in age and married a pair of brothers after immigrating to America. LuLing married Edwin Young, who was the elder brother and a medical student, while GaoLing married Edmund, who attended dental school. It seemed that LuLing had the brighter future ahead, but Edwin was killed in a hit and run accident when Ruth was only two years old. Edmund has become respected and wealthy, especially since he inherited most of his father’s money, and Ruth and LuLing received only a small inheritance. LuLing set this money aside and eventually combined it with years of saving to purchase the house where she still lives. During Ruth’s childhood, LuLing often expressed her frustration that she ended up with so little money and lived a life that was much more difficult than the life of her sister.

Summary: Chapter Three

Ruth and LuLing arrive at the doctor’s office, which specializes in providing services to Chinese patients. LuLing’s forgetfulness leads Ruth to repeat herself about the death of her beloved cat, even though she shared this news with LuLing months ago. The doctor reports that LuLing is in excellent health but becomes concerned when LuLing evades basic questions he asks her. As the conversation continues, LuLing becomes more confused and erratic in her responses, and eventually Ruth speaks with the doctor privately, admitting that she has noticed signs of mental confusion in her mother for months. The doctor suggests running additional tests and returning for a follow-up appointment in a month since several conditions could be causing LuLing’s confusion. That night, LuLing has dinner with Ruth, Art, and the girls, but the dinner is unpleasant because LuLing keeps scolding Ruth about the girls’ behavior, and the girls are irritated by her presence.

As a child, Ruth changed schools frequently, causing her to be friendless and lonely. One day, when Ruth was six, her mother embarrassed her by scolding her on the playground in front of other children. Ruth defiantly threw herself down the slide and broke her arm. To Ruth’s surprise, the accident made the other children much nicer to her, and it also caused her mother to treat her with more kindness. Awed by how much better her life had become, Ruth stopped speaking. She believed that if she spoke, things would go back to normal. Her mother encouraged her to write rather than speak, and this also gave Ruth positive attention from the other children at school. Ruth was surprised by how her mother asked for her opinion and perspective in a way that she had never done before. One day, Ruth realized that her mother believed Ruth could communicate with the spirit of Precious Auntie. LuLing became very eager for Ruth to ask the ghost questions about whether she forgave LuLing and whether the curse had been lifted, but Ruth didn’t understand what her mother was talking about. LuLing promised to one day return to China and find the missing bones of the spirit.

In her apartment, Ruth considers phoning Miriam, Art’s ex-wife, to ask if the girls can join the family reunion she is organizing. Ruth hesitates and thinks about the intimacy she still senses between Art and Miriam. Their closeness is confusing because Ruth is much more reserved and does not like to ask Art for a lot of details about his past life.

Analysis: Part One: Chapters Two & Three

This section reveals more about LuLing’s character from Ruth’s perspective. Ruth is obviously not an impartial observer; she has complex yet ambivalent feelings about her mother. As a single mother and child, LuLing and Ruth spent virtually all of their time together and were each other’s primary sources of companionship, which made Ruth both dependent and uncomfortable. LuLing’s limited English abilities added another layer of complexity to their dynamic. Even as a young child, Ruth always had a certain level of responsibility and was required to help her mother. Ruth’s need to act as a translator parallels how LuLing was required to interpret for Precious Auntie, who was unable to communicate with anyone else because of her injuries. Throughout her life, Ruth has had a challenging relationship with her mother because of LuLing’s intense and erratic personality.

LuLing’s history provides some explanation for why she has become a bitter woman. Although she had the presence and support of her sister, GaoLing, immigrating to California meant leaving behind all of her friends and family and an entire way of life. LuLing’s hopes were then crushed by the abrupt death of her second husband. She lost the possibility of enjoying an economically comfortable life due to her husband’s career as a physician and position as the Young family’s eldest son and heir. LuLing and GaoLing’s choice of prospective husbands forms an interesting contrast with Ruth’s approach to romantic relationships. While Ruth is secure in her own career and chooses Art because she enjoys his company, her mother and aunt viewed their choice of husband as the way to attain economic security. LuLing’s plan failed, but GaoLing’s succeeded, and this has created a rift between the women.

Ruth’s personal and professional lives revolve around ensuring that others get their needs met. While she takes pride in her career, she does not get public credit for the work she does, and she does not have the agency to communicate her own ideas. Ruth struggles to fully express herself and articulate her true ambitions and desires, meaning she experiences a metaphorical silence (in addition to the physical silence she experiences upon losing her voice each year). The other silent character in the novel, Precious Auntie, is silent because of terrible scars, and while Ruth is not physically scarred, the parallel between the two women suggests that Ruth carries some sort of psychological wound within her. When she talks with her friend Wendy, Ruth is astonished by the intimacy and open communication that seems to exist between other couples. Ruth’s earliest model of emotional closeness was her mother, and the communication barrier between them meant Ruth has never learned what it is like to truly share herself with someone.

Ruth’s professional role parallels her personal role as a de facto stepmother and caregiver. She must shoulder many personal burdens and responsibilities, but she does not get the recognition or rewards that others do. Especially as LuLing’s behavior has become more erratic, Ruth steps into more of a caregiving role, reversing the usual parent-child dynamic. Moreover, Ruth has to juggle competing demands between people who are important to her. There exists both generational and cultural tension between LuLing and Art’s daughters. The young girls cannot relate to LuLing, do not feel any bond with her, and do not feel an obligation to respect her. LuLing has much different ideas about how children should be raised, and she is surprised to see her daughter participating in a family life that is very different from the one she understands. Ruth is often frustrated because she has a responsibility to both LuLing and Art’s daughters, but none of them feel obligated to listen to her in return.

Ruth’s childhood memory of breaking her arm reveals how underlying power dynamics in her relationship with LuLing first became established. As the child of an immigrant parent, Ruth wanted to fit in, so she was often embarrassed by LuLing. Breaking her arm symbolically connected her to Precious Auntie and to the bone healers in her maternal ancestry. At the time, however, all Ruth knows is that both her mother and her peers treat her with more kindness when they believe that she is hurt. Ruth paradoxically gains power by becoming vulnerable: when she stops speaking, people nurture and care for her. The incident teaches her that bravery is dangerous, but being quiet and uncomplaining is rewarded. Although Ruth may not see the connection as a child, readers understand how this accident likely shaped her subsequent character. Even as a woman in her forties, Ruth tries to be docile, unobtrusive, and agreeable. She still goes through periods of silence, which may now reflect an unconscious desire for greater tenderness or attentiveness from Art, in the same way that silence earned her mother’s affection when she was a child.

The bone-breaking incident also sparks LuLing’s belief that her daughter can commune with the spirit of Precious Auntie. Ruth’s writing on the tray of sand evokes memories of how LuLing and Precious Auntie once communicated, and makes it seem possible that a voice is being channeled through Ruth and into the words she writes. The lack of communication between mother and daughter is what makes this whole mistake possible. Ruth has no idea what her mother is talking about when her mother begins to rant about curses, bones, ghosts, and unburied bodies. In Ruth’s mind, this confirms that LuLing is either mentally unstable, hopelessly superstitious, or both. She is unable to recognize the truth in LuLing’s words because she does not understand her mother’s history.