Opening in San Francisco in January 1990, an extended Chinese-American family gathers for a dual purpose — an engagement dinner and a funeral. The first narrator, Pearl Louie Brandt, conceals a seven-year struggle with multiple sclerosis from her widowed mother, Winnie. At the banquet, Pearl learns that Helen, Winnie's best friend and co-owner of a flower shop, knows about the disease and threatens to pass the news to Winnie as part of the Chinese New Year ritual of clearing the air of secrets. Pearl accepts the fact that she herself must tell her mother about the disease.
The Buddhist funeral of Helen's Auntie Du releases in Pearl the grief she has repressed for her father, Jimmy Louie, a Baptist minister, who died a quarter century earlier, when Pearl was fourteen. From Auntie Du, Pearl inherits a table altar to the Kitchen God, a deceitful husband and a judge of who gets good luck and who gets bad.
After the banquet and funeral, Helen shares with Winnie a letter informing her that Wen Fu, Winnie's former abusive husband, has died of heart disease. Just as Helen has threatened to tell Pearl's secret to Winnie before the New Year, Helen now threatens Winnie that she will tell Pearl about Winnie's secret-filled life, now that Wen Fu is dead — unless Winnie tells Pearl about it herself.
That story, told by Winnie to Pearl, is the novel's major focus, a long and intense narrative, structured by many episodes:
- Winnie's early life as Jiang Weili, daughter of Jiang Sao-yen, a Shanghai textile factory owner
- her abandonment at the age of six by her vain mother and subsequently by her father
- her early marriage to — and humiliation by — the selfish, abusive Wen Fu, a pilot for China's new air force
- her long and stormy friendship with Hulan, wife of Wen Fu's boss
- the individual and cooperative struggles to survive the invasion of China by the Japanese
- the births and deaths of three children
- the continued and escalating abuse by Wen Fu
- Winnie's encounters with Jimmy Louie, first at an American dance and much later on a Shanghai street
- her arrest, trial, and imprisonment
- her flight from Wen Fu and China to Jimmy Louie and California in 1949; and finally,
- the reunion with Hulan, now Helen, and the resumption of their quarrelsome friendship (Winnie claimed that Helen was her sister by marriage so that Helen and her family could emigrate from Formosa to the U.S.).
The gnawing ache in Winnie's relationship with Pearl springs from continual fear about Wen Fu, whom she suspects is Pearl's father. Recalling the perverted joy Wen Fu took in abusing them all, Winnie still grieves for Mochou, her stillborn first daughter; for Yiku, her second daughter, who died after Wen Fu's cruelty and neglect; and for Danru, who died far from his mother while she was attempting to divorce Wen Fu. Later, she sees in Pearl a likeness to all three of these children.
With gold given to her secretly by her mute, ailing father and with encouragement from a rebellious cousin and from Jimmy Louie, Weili (Winnie) makes plans to flee not only her marriage, but also Shanghai and China. Wen Fu foils the plot and has Weili arrested. At her trial, Weili elects to spend two years in prison rather than return to her impossible marriage. In the scandal stimulated by the trial, Jimmy Louie loses his job as interpreter and must return to the United States. He vows to return in two years, and meanwhile he supports her with letters and gifts of American dollars.
Auntie Du obtains Weili's early release from prison in the spring of 1949 by intimidating corrupt officials. Through trickery, Weili forces Wen Fu to sign divorce papers; Wen Fu avenges himself by stalking her, ripping up the divorce papers, threatening to steal the plane tickets, and raping Weili at gunpoint. She captures his gun and forces him trouserless into the street. She leaves China by plane the next day, narrowly escaping occupation of Shanghai by the Communists, who ban all emigration. She settles with Jimmy in California, fearful that the child she bears may be the offspring of Wen Fu, inheriting his evil traits.
When Winnie concludes her life story, Pearl ends a quarter-century of mother-daughter alienation by disclosing her multiple sclerosis to her mother. Plans form for a trip to China to seek herbal treatments and cures.
To seal their newfound comfort with the truth, Winnie burns the picture of the cruel Kitchen God and selects for Pearl a new icon for the red temple altar: Lady Sorrowfree.