Pearl Louie Brandt has a terrible secret which she tries desperately to keep from her mother, Winnie Louie. And Winnie has long kept her own secrets - about her past and the confusing circumstances of Pearl's birth. Fate intervenes in the form of Helen Kwong, Winnie's so-called sister-in-law, who believes she is dying and must unburden herself of all falsehoods before she flies off to heaven. But, unfortunately, the truth comes in many guises, depending on who is telling the tale . . .
Thus begins a story that takes us back to Shanghai in the 1920s, through World War II, and the harrowing events that lead to Winnie's arrival in America in 1949. The story is one of innocence and its loss, tragedy and survival and, most of all, the enduring qualities of hope, love and friendship. Tan's voice - her vivid characterisation, her sly and poignant humour, and her sympathetic insights into human relationships - gives us a compelling novel, both painful and sweet, suffused with hopes universal to us all.