Ruth Young is a Chinese-American woman in her forties who lives in San Francisco and works as a ghostwriter. Ruth has a stable life but is sometimes troubled by doubts about her relationship with her boyfriend, Art. She often feels overwhelmed by the stress of managing her career and her family life, which includes acting as a stepmother to Art’s two adolescent daughters. Ruth has a close but ambivalent relationship with her elderly mother, LuLing. LuLing raised Ruth as a widowed single mother, and the two of them often fought, especially since LuLing has always had a bad temper and a history of depression. Ruth is distressed to find that her mother is showing signs of forgetfulness and confusion. When LuLing is diagnosed with dementia, Ruth becomes eager to learn about her mother’s past. Years before, LuLing gave Ruth a document in which she wrote down some of her life story, but, since the document is written in Chinese, Ruth struggled to read it and has made little effort to persevere. After LuLing’s diagnosis, Ruth finds the remainder of the document and decides to have it professionally translated. While she waits for the translation to be completed, Ruth moves in with her mother to help care for her.
The handwritten document tells the story of LuLing’s life. She was born in 1916 in a small town in China, not far from the city of Peking (modern-day Beijing). LuLing was born into the Liu family, a prosperous family of ink-makers, and grew up in an extended family unit with her sister GaoLing, brothers, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The most important person in LuLing’s life, however, was her nursemaid, Precious Auntie. Precious Auntie was a mysterious woman who had severe scarring and was unable to speak. LuLing communicated with her through writing and other means and acted as a translator for the rest of the family. In the document, LuLing reveals events from Precious Auntie’s life that took place before she was born. It is later revealed that LuLing knows this information because of a document Precious Auntie wrote for her.
Precious Auntie was raised by a man who worked as a bonesetter and healer, using both traditional and modern medicine. Because she was the only surviving child and her father was a widower, Precious Auntie grew up well-educated, independent, and accustomed to thinking for herself. She was also very beautiful, and her beauty eventually attracted proposals from both a man named Chang, who worked as a coffin maker, and Baby Uncle, the youngest son of the Liu family. Precious Auntie accepted the proposal from Baby Uncle because she was in love with him, and the couple began to have a sexual relationship before they were married. On the day of the wedding, Baby Uncle followed tradition and escorted Precious Auntie and her father to his house along with gifts from the bride’s family. These gifts included the “dragon bones” that were found in mountain caves nearby and used in healing rituals. The travelling party was attacked by men who appeared to be bandits. Precious Auntie’s father was killed in the attack, and all the valuables were stolen. Baby Uncle was killed immediately after the attack when he vowed revenge and his horse kicked him. Precious Auntie was convinced that the attack was orchestrated by Chang as revenge for her rejection of him.
Precious Auntie was taken to the Liu house to recover from her grief, but in despair, she tried to kill herself by drinking burning ink. This left her scarred and permanently unable to speak. When it became clear that she was pregnant with Baby Uncle’s child, the Liu family decided to cover up the scandal of an illegitimate birth. The baby, LuLing, was adopted by Baby Uncle’s eldest brother and his wife and passed off as their own child. Precious Auntie was allowed to stay and care for her child, but no one ever told LuLing that her nursemaid was actually her true mother. LuLing and Precious Auntie were very close, but as LuLing became a teenager, their relationship became more strained. LuLing began to see Precious Auntie as a lower-ranking woman whom she did not want to listen to, and she also became more ambitious about her own future.
When LuLing was almost fifteen, she was summoned to meet with the family of a prospective husband. LuLing later learned that she was being considered as a wife for one of Chang’s sons. She was happy about this because the marriage would mean becoming wealthy. However, Precious Auntie had always insisted that Chang was responsible for the death of Baby Uncle, and she forbade the marriage. LuLing ignored her and did not read the document Precious Auntie gave her. In despair, Precious Auntie killed herself, and after she died, LuLing read the document and finally learned that Precious Auntie was her true mother. The family now believed that LuLing was associated with bad luck, so they sent her to an orphanage run by American missionaries. While living there, LuLing became a teacher and married a man she loved. Eventually, GaoLing joined LuLing at the orphanage, running away from her own unhappy marriage to Chang’s son.
When World War II broke out, the situation became dangerous. LuLing’s husband was killed, and GaoLing and LuLing moved to Peking together. When the war ended, GaoLing had the opportunity to immigrate to America, so she left and promised to sponsor LuLing to join her. While she waited, LuLing worked hard to earn money while living in Hong Kong. Eventually, GaoLing met two brothers, Edmund and Edwin Young, who were both looking for wives. LuLing went to America, married the elder brother, and gave birth to Ruth. However, her husband died when Ruth was a baby, so she had to raise Ruth by herself, while GaoLing lived a much more prosperous life with her husband and two children. LuLing has always been filled with regret and grief about what happened to Precious Auntie and even believes that she can communicate with her spirit.
Once Ruth reads the document and learns the true story of her mother’s life, she becomes much more compassionate toward her. With Art’s help, Ruth is able to move LuLing into an assisted living home, which LuLing enjoys. Ruth finally tracks down Precious Auntie’s real name and feels a much deeper connection to her family history. She now has a happier relationship with Art and begins to write a story in her own voice for the first time.