The novel traces the fate of four mothers — Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair — and their four daughters — Jing-mei "June" Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. All four mothers fled China in the 1940s and retain much of their heritage. All four daughters are very Americanized. As Tan remarked, the club's four older women represent "different aspects of my mother, but the book could be about any culture or generation and what is lost between them."
The four older women have experienced almost inconceivable horrors early in their lives. Suyuan Woo was forced to abandon her infant daughters in order to survive in a war-torn land; An-mei Hsu sees her mother commit suicide in order to enable her daughter to have a future. Lindo Jong is married at twelve to a child to whom she was betrothed in infancy; Ying-ying St. Clair was abandoned by her husband, had an abortion, and lived in great poverty for a decade. She then married a man whom she did not love, a man she could barely communicate with despite their years together.
By comparison, the four daughters have led relatively blessed lives, cosseted by their doting — if assertive — mothers. Ironically, each of the daughters has great difficulty achieving happiness. Waverly Jong divorces her first husband, and both Lena St. Clair and Rose Hsu Jordan are on the verge of splitting with their husbands. Lena is wretchedly unhappy and considering divorce; Rose's husband, Ted, has already served the divorce papers. Jing-mei has never married nor has she a lover. Furthermore, none of the daughters is entirely comfortable when dealing with the events of her life. Although she has achieved great economic success as a tax accountant, Waverly is afraid to tell her mother that she plans to remarry. Lena has a serious eating disorder, and she bitterly resents the way that she and her husband, Harold, split their finances, and how her career has suffered in order to advance his. Rose suffers a breakdown when her husband moves out. She lacks self-esteem, and her mother cannot understand why she sobs to a psychiatrist rather than asserting herself. Jing-mei is easily intimidated, especially by her childhood friend Waverly. She is not satisfied with her job as an advertising copywriter, and, like Rose, she lacks self-esteem.
Through the love of their mothers, each of these young women learns about her heritage and so is able to deal more effectively with her life.