The two main characters in this story are the narrator, Jing-Mei "June" Woo, and her mother, Suyuan Woo.
Jing-Mei is a young woman who tells tells the story in the aftermath of her mother's death. She recalls her childhood, when, in reaction to her mother's insistence on living her own hopes and dreams through her daughter, she was bitter, insecure, and rebellious, caught between two cultures and unable to live up to her mother's unrealistic expectations. Jing-Mei's mother had wanted her to be a prodigy in some area so that she could "brag" about her like her friend Lindo Jong always spoke about her own daughter Waverley. Repeated failure eventually left Jing-Mei feeling inadequate and angry, always at odds with her mother and only wanting to be allowed to be herself.
Suyuan Woo emigrated to San Francisco in the years after World War II. She had suffered terribly in China, having lost her first husband and twin baby girls in the War. Suyuan came to America with the belief that in that new land, a person could achieve anything they wanted. A harsh, competitive, mean-spirited woman, at times, Suyuan seeks to attain her ambitions through Jing-Mei, her only remaining daughter, with seemingly little concern for how the little girl might feel.