Suyuan Woo The central event in Suyuan's life is the loss of her twin baby daughters. In a desperate attempt to save her babies from the Japanese troops advancing through China, Suyuan leaves them by the side of the road. Soon after, she meets her second husband, Canning Woo. They emigrate to America and have a daughter. A strong, resourceful woman, Suyuan never gives up the search for her first two daughters.
An-mei Hsu An-mei's mother, the wife of a respected scholar, loses all status when her husband dies; she is raped and forced into concubinage by the wealthy Wu Tsing. She kills herself so that An-mei can have freedom. An-mei comes to America, marries, and has seven children. Her youngest child, Bing, drowns in the ocean.
Lindo Jong Betrothed at infancy to Tyan-yu, Lindo marries him when she is twelve years old, after floods destroy her parents' home. She is treated very badly and finally tricks the family into releasing her from the marriage. She comes to America, gets a job in a fortune cookie factory, meets and marries Tin Jong. They have three children: Winston, Vincent, and Waverly.
Ying-ying St. Clair Ying-ying grew up a fearless, reckless girl amid great wealth. When her husband leaves her for an opera singer, she has an abortion and lives in poverty for ten years. Then she moves to the city and becomes a shop girl. She meets Clifford St. Clair, and they marry and move to America. He adores her, but she has lost her spirit. She must confront her past in order to regain her sense of self.
Jing-mei "June" Woo Her mother tries to make her a piano prodigy, but Jing-mei lacks both talent and drive. Now a copywriter for a small advertising firm, Jing-mei is easily humiliated by those who possess greater self-confidence. She finds her identity when she meets her twin half-sisters in China, after her mother's death.
Rose Hsu Jordan A timid person, Rose is unable to make decisions. Her husband, Ted, leaves her and demands possession of their home. After a breakdown, she comes into her own and learns to assert herself.
Waverly Jong A childhood chess prodigy, Waverly becomes a successful tax accountant. After the failure of her first marriage, she falls in love with fellow accountant Rich Shields. She has a daughter, Shoshana, from her first marriage.
Lena St. Clair Lena establishes her husband, Harold Livotny, in his own architectural firm, providing him with seed money and ideas. Eight years later, they are dividing the household expenses equally, although Harold now earns seven times more than Lena does. She is resentful and angry.
Arnold A neighborhood boy who teases Lena when they are children, he later dies of measles; Lena feels guilty, linking his death to her unwillingness to finish her daily rice. She develops an eating disorder.
Ted Jordan Rose Hsu Jordan's husband; a physician; he sues Rose for divorce ostensibly because of her inability to make decisions. In reality, he is having an affair with another woman.
Tin Jong Lindo Jong's husband; Waverly Jong's father.
Harold Livotny Lena's husband; an architect.
Clifford St. Clair Ying-ying's husband; Lena's father. A well-meaning man, he nonetheless cannot understand his wife's loneliness and isolation.
Wu Tsing The wealthy merchant who forces An-mei Hsu's mother into concubinage by raping her.
Popo An-mei's grandmother. She throws her daughter out of the house because of the disgrace that she brings upon the family.