Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Ruth is one protagonist of the novel; she recounts not only her present life and her mother’s current story, but also her mother’s and grandmother’s pasts. Ruth learns a great deal throughout the book, from believing in her mother to discovering her own strengths. Ruth is pushed around by others and tends to be a peacemaker. For instance, when her boyfriend’s ex-wife invites herself and her family to the Full Moon Festival (Chinese Thanksgiving) which Ruth is hosting, she is upset because it is a family get-together that she has painstakingly planned; however, she says nothing and merely orders more food to accommodate the new guests.
Ruth is a ghostwriter—or book doctor, as her boyfriend calls it—and she spends a good portion of her days revising other people’s work instead of working on her own book. She is frustrated with the job, which involves a great deal of research, phone calls, and mental challenges and often takes more of her time than she has to spare.
Ruth’s relationship with her boyfriend, Art, is strained from the start of the novel but becomes even more so when she decides to move out for a little while to take care of her aging mother. While she and LuLing have not had the closest of mother-daughter relationships, Ruth will do anything to help her mother. She tends to dismiss her mother’s statements as confused because of the onset of LuLing’s dementia, not realizing that LuLing’s words actually do make sense.
It is only when she hears the whole true story of LuLing’s past that Ruth recognizes her mother’s true strength and wisdom. The reader learns along with Ruth that knowing the past is important, that we must truly listen, and that we need to make our own strength in our lives.
LuLing is another protagonist of the book. She currently struggles with Alzheimer’s and is intent on repairing the damage to her relationship with Ruth. She is described at one point as “beaming at her [daughter] with motherly adoration.” She loves her daughter but is not always able to convey her thoughts. Because LuLing frequently complains, Ruth does not pay attention to her words, but LuLing desperately wants her daughter to know where she (LuLing) came from, the pain she suffered in her life that has brought her to this point, and how her past relates to Ruth.
LuLing's life has consisted of one sorrow after another, yet she has persevered with great strength and wit. For instance, when she was younger, she was cared for by a nurse, Precious Auntie, whom she loved. After the two had a serious argument, Precious Auntie killed herself, and LuLing discovered that her beloved nurse was really her biological mother, who was trying to protect her. LuLing had to find a way to live with herself, knowing that she said very hurtful things to her mother. Her life was largely shaped by this event. In the present, LuLing continues to endure the hardships in her life with strength and determination, ultimately becoming a role model for Ruth.
Precious Auntie is LuLing’s real mother but is unable to tell her daughter the truth during her lifetime. She is heartbroken when her bridegroom is killed, and in her grief, she tries to commit suicide by drinking hot resin; she succeeds only in maiming her face. She shows great strength and resilience in raising her daughter as her nursemaid, as the family wishes to conceal her real identity from LuLing. Precious Auntie loves LuLing more than anything, and in the end, she makes the ultimate...
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sacrifice for her daughter, taking her own life in order to prevent LuLing from making the mistake of marrying into the Chang family.
Precious Auntie reveals the incredible love that a mother can have for a daughter—even when that daughter has hurt her—and exemplifies how far a mother will go to protect her child.
GaoLing is LuLing’s sister. The two grow up believing they have the same mother, until LuLing’s true mother, Precious Auntie, is revealed. That does not alter the sisters’ feelings, however, and the two remain close throughout their lives, even when separated.
Although Ruth is reluctant to ask for GaoLing’s help in caring for LuLing, GaoLing insists on helping. Ruth observes that the two sisters have “taken turns protecting each other” during terrible circumstances in their pasts, and now they continue to rely on one another in their old age.
GaoLing functions as proof for Ruth of the story that LuLing has told her. She also acts as a constant in LuLing’s life, beginning from their childhood.
Art is Ruth’s boyfriend, whom she met in a yoga class. At the beginning of the novel, they have been together for about a decade and are living together in Art’s house. Although he loves Ruth, Art tends to take her for granted. For instance, because Ruth works at home, Art assumes she can do things such as call and wait for the plumber. He is frustrated at first when Ruth spends so much time caring for her mother, as he doesn’t understand her sense of obligation.
Their separation helps Art to learn how important Ruth is to him, and he begins to make changes and consider Ruth’s feelings. He and his daughters begin to regularly visit Ruth at LuLing’s house so they can spend time together as a family; he also offers to pay for LuLing to try an assisted living facility and promises Ruth that her mother can visit them at their house anytime.
Over the course of the novel, Art learns the importance of compromise and sharing in a relationship, something he never considered before. Almost losing Ruth is the catalyst for Art’s realization that he needs to change.
Fia and Dory
Dory and Sophia (called Fia) are Art’s daughters from his previous marriage, to a woman named Miriam. When they were little, they showed their love for Ruth by fighting over who would hold her hand. Now that they are teenagers, Ruth feels all they do is fight and annoy her. Nevertheless, she loves them deeply and has raised them as a second mother, since they’ve spent their time equally between Art’s and Miriam’s homes.
Although they do not have a large part in the plot, the girls are important: they show Ruth the beauty of motherhood, and because she loves them as her daughters, Ruth is better able to understand her own mother’s feelings toward her.
Wendy is Ruth’s best friend and confidant. She is like family to Ruth, and the two find time to speak every day, with Wendy acting as an important sounding board for Ruth. Ruth feels Wendy makes “her life more sparkly,” since she has a flair for drama and is “a divining rod for strange disturbances.” It was Wendy who was responsible for pushing Ruth into taking yoga classes in order to forget a breakup, and it was in those classes that Ruth met Art.
Mr. Tang is the man whom Ruth hired to translate LuLing’s manuscript. LuLing had written her life story for Ruth, but since it was in Chinese, Ruth never read it. Mr. Tang not only translates the text, he also becomes a part of LuLing’s life. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy each other’s company. Ruth feels he “translated what was in LuLing’s heart: her better intentions, her hopes.” He is attentive to LuLing and pretends to remember the same things she does about growing up in China. Ruth is grateful to see her mother happy in this new relationship.
Mr. Tang represents the meeting of past and future. The reason he is able to become close to LuLing so quickly is that he understands her from having read her life story; for this same reason, Mr. Tang is able to reference the past to make LuLing comfortable while playing a part in her future as well.