Summary: Chapter One

In the present day, Ruth has hired an elderly man named Mr. Tang to translate LuLing’s narrative. Mr. Tang becomes fascinated with the story he uncovers. While he is working, Ruth stays at her mother’s house. Art is initially worried by this decision, fearing that it reflects her being unhappy with their relationship. To explain to LuLing why she is moving in with her, Ruth says that she is working on a children’s book and wants LuLing to do the illustrations. Living with her mother gives Ruth the sense that she is reverting to an earlier version of herself. It also gives her the chance to reflect on her relationship with Art, and she is pleased to see that both he and the girls seem to miss her more than she expected.

Mr. Tang calls to tell Ruth that he has finished the translation, although he is curious about whether there is more to the document. Ruth invites him to come to dinner so that he can deliver the translation and meet LuLing in person. Because of what he knows about her past, Mr. Tang reminisces with LuLing as if they are old friends. As soon as he leaves, Ruth reads the document, realizing that some of what she interpreted as signs that LuLing was confused was actually rooted in real history. She now has a new perspective on her mother and their relationship.

The next day, Ruth phones Art and tells him what she has learned. Art shares that he has been reflecting on their relationship and the future. He asks Ruth if she would consider finding an assisted living facility for LuLing. Ruth is initially resistant, but she is touched that Art is taking an interest in the situation. Art fakes a letter claiming that there are signs of dangerous chemical levels near LuLing’s house and that the local government is going to pay for her to stay at a “luxury residence” for several months. This way, Ruth and Art can secretly get LuLing to give the assisted living home a chance. Ruth is impressed with the commitment Art shows to the plan. She and Art go and visit the residence he selects, and Ruth is impressed with the facilities but horrified by the cost. Art reassures her that he is happy to cover the cost and urges Ruth to be more accepting when people show her kindness and love. LuLing seems happy to move to the facility, especially once Art and Ruth convince her that she is getting a better deal than everyone else.

Summary: Chapter Two

The family gathers to celebrate GaoLing’s birthday. Ruth manages to find a moment alone with GaoLing and mentions a few of the details she has learned from reading her mother’s manuscript. GaoLing assumes that LuLing has finally shared this information with her daughter. GaoLing explains that she always thought it was fine to simply tell the truth, but LuLing insisted on keeping the secret. Edmund is the only one who knows the truth. Ruth tells GaoLing about the manuscript, which she believes LuLing wrote seven or eight years ago, possibly when she began to be concerned about her own memory. She also mentions the idea of LuLing moving into a care home. GaoLing initially objects, but Ruth persuades her to visit the facility. Ruth says that she will not make any decisions without GaoLing’s approval. She also wants GaoLing to read the document.

GaoLing provides additional details about individuals mentioned in the manuscript. Chang was arrested after the war for shady business practices and executed. Most of his family was left penniless, and Fu Nan eventually died. GaoLing has never told anyone about her first husband. GaoLing explains that when her father-in-law died, she and Edmund felt badly about LuLing only being left a small amount of money. They split the inheritance and gave her half, but LuLing never spent the money. She invested it so that it has grown over time. However, GaoLing cannot remember the key piece of information Ruth wants: Precious Auntie’s real name. The conversation ends abruptly when LuLing falls into the swimming pool and has to be rescued by Art. The next day, Ruth moves some of her mother’s items to the assisted living home. That night, she and Art have dinner. They discuss their love for one another and their desire to move to a new stage of their relationship where they will be more honest and emotionally intimate.

Summary: Chapter Three

The narrative resumes about a month later. LuLing lives happily at the assisted living home and enjoys a new relationship with Mr. Tang. One day, Mr. Tang takes LuLing, Ruth, and Art to a museum where he shows them an ancient bone object. LuLing recognizes it as the “oracle bone” she once owned and sold. As LuLing drifts into the recollection, she shares her mother’s name: Liu Xin Gu. At first, Ruth is elated, but then she realizes that since “gu” is the Chinese word for “bone,” her mother must simply be confused. She feels defeated, wondering if she will ever know the family name of her maternal grandmother. However, Ruth is heartened by the relationship developing between her mother and Mr. Tang. That night, Art suggests that he and Ruth consider marriage.

A few days later, GaoLing phones Ruth. She reached out to family members in China and asked them to do some research. They confirmed that LuLing’s mother was named Liu Xin Gu. Her father was Dr. Gu, but the sound for “gu” can mean several things, including “bone.” Ruth realizes that she can finally have a clear connection to her grandmother.

Summary: Epilogue

On August 12, one year after the story began, Ruth again observes her annual silence. She has not lost her voice, but she chooses to focus on writing rather than speaking. LuLing recently reached out to apologize for some of her past behavior, and Ruth reassured her that she loved and forgave her. With her new understanding of her family history, Ruth feels more compassion for her mother and herself. She is now writing a book of her own.

Analysis: Part Three: Chapters One–Three & Epilogue

Surprisingly, Ruth’s decision to become closer to her mother affects her relationship with Art before it affects her relationship with LuLing. Art has grown accustomed to having all of his needs met in the relationship, and he is used to having Ruth put herself second. Therefore, it surprises him when Ruth moves out to be with LuLing. Without Ruth around to oversee daily domestic responsibilities, Art and his daughters quickly realize just how valuable Ruth has been and how little they have appreciated her. Art’s new appreciation for Ruth causes him to reflect on the emotional dynamic in their relationship. He is able to communicate that he feels like Ruth has never been fully open with him, and Ruth, having just read her mother’s manuscript, can recognize the truth in this. When she reads the manuscript, Ruth realizes how much her mother has hidden and what this has meant for Ruth. Ruth has unwittingly imitated LuLing’s behavior of hiding true feelings and desires. In fact, as Ruth admits to Art, she doesn’t even know what she truly wants.

Once she understands who LuLing truly is, Ruth can begin the work of trying to understand her identity and what she wants her future to look like. Her relationship with Art has always been partially stalled, but now it can move forward. Through this relationship, Tan implies that when people are missing a connection to their past, they cannot fully embrace their future. After a trial separation, Ruth and Art both become more grateful for one another and more committed to moving forward in their relationship. This deepened partnership allows them to work together on their plan to move LuLing into an assisted living facility. Significantly, Art is the one who comes up with this idea.

Art is also the one who orchestrates the plan to deceive LuLing. On one hand, the deception is relatively harmless and actually improves LuLing’s quality of life. On the other, the plan relies on a lie at a moment when the plot of the novel shows just how important honesty is. Ruth finally knows LuLing for the first time, with no secrets and no lies, and yet she immediately introduces a falsehood into their relationship. Indeed, Ruth begins to enjoy the plot to trick LuLing because it helps her feel closer to Art. Once her relationship with Art improves, he arguably becomes the most important person in her life. This might represent a healthy maturation in which Ruth can finally separate her identity from her relationship with her mother, but it also marks a moment where she chooses loyalty to Art over a truly honest relationship with LuLing. At the same time, the deception is only possible because of how well Ruth knows LuLing, and, in this sense, it reflects the intimacy of truly knowing someone’s character and what is important to them.

Mr. Tang represents the possibility of a new start for LuLing and shows the effect that honesty and transparency can have. Even before he meets her, Mr. Tang is infatuated with LuLing, which shows that admiration can develop based on knowledge of someone’s past rather than their present. A close bond grows between the elderly couple because Mr. Tang is the first person in years who truly knows everything there is to know about LuLing. In a sense, that makes her feel as if he has been part of her life for years. It is also telling that when Mr. Tang knows the truth about LuLing’s past, he falls in love with her. LuLing has hidden her secrets for years because she believed people would shame and reject her if they knew the truth. She inherited this legacy of shame and secrecy because of how Precious Auntie was forced to hide the truth about her life. However, with both Ruth and Mr. Tang, the truth is what makes people see LuLing clearly and respect and admire her for everything she has lived through.

The new information about her mother results in an inward change more than an outer one for Ruth. Because of LuLing’s declining cognitive state, Ruth does not discuss what she has learned with her or ask additional questions. This lack of conversation shows the loss associated with delay. Ruth is more fortunate than LuLing was in that she learns the truth about her mother while her mother is still alive, but it is still too late for her and LuLing to truly achieve a new type of relationship. LuLing is now suffering from dementia and cannot discuss the manuscript with Ruth. Still, LuLing does seem to experience a new kind of peacefulness. For the first time, the people around her have the context to understand what she is trying to communicate, and she can make references to her past. LuLing is no longer alone with her story, and Ruth has new knowledge that enriches her own life.

Because she cannot discuss the manuscript with her mother, Ruth makes choices for herself about how she wants to honor her mother and grandmother. These choices are especially significant because Ruth does not have her own daughter. Ruth’s decision to not have children is not discussed in detail, but she does reflect that she feared repeating the same patterns LuLing established when raising her. Ruth has thus broken the chain of mothers transmitting their pain but also their strength to their daughters. Perhaps because of this, she becomes determined to learn the true name of her maternal grandmother. So much about Precious Auntie has already been lost. There will never be a grave or a commemoration for her, and as LuLing’s memory fades, the last traces of her will be lost. By learning her name, Ruth wants to assert her grandmother’s existence and preserve her legacy.

When she finally learns her grandmother’s name, Ruth feels a sense of peace because she can now understand her own identity and history in ways she has previously pushed aside. Ruth’s extended family has always been tied to her father’s family, but now she has balance. This reclamation of her female lineage empowers Ruth to find her voice and be more assertive. This affects her professionally as well as personally. Not only does her relationship with Art become much more open and equitable, but Ruth also begins to write her own book rather than simply revise the stories of others. The new relationship to her mother and grandmother’s history gives her the confidence to finally articulate herself. Ruth becomes a mirror of her grandmother in that she continues to observe a period of silence so that she can focus on communicating through writing. Spoken words are temporary and vanish quickly, but as the novel has shown, written words can endure and provide truth for generations to come.