Pearl Louie Brandt is an American-born Chinese, daughter of Winnie Louie.† She is married to an American, has two children, and works as a speech therapist in San Jose.† She is torn between her Chinese heritage, at times exasperated with her old-fashioned and superstitious mother yet aware of her obligation as a daughter.† In the beginning of the story, Winnie requests Pearl and her family to attend an engagement party for her cousin Bao-Bao in San Francisco.† Pearl is reluctant to go as she is caught up in her American life with her husband Phil.† Two days before the party, she finds out about the death of her Grand Auntie Du and that the funeral is set for the day after the engagement party.† Knowing she will feel guilty if she does not attend, Pearl sets off with her husband and two daughters for San Francisco.
Pearl has multiple sclerosis but neglects to inform her mother of the fact.† Winnie also has many secrets in her past that she has kept hidden from her daughter.† Auntie Helen, Winnieís sister, goes to Winnie and Pearl in turn and demands that they tell each other their secrets.† Her reason is that she has a brain tumor and does not want to die knowing that mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other.† Helen even threatens Pearl that she will tell Winnie of her multiple sclerosis if Pearl does not.† All along, Helen knows that her brain tumor is benign but only uses this as a ploy for a heart to heart between mother and daughter.† Though she masks it with old-fashioned beliefs, Auntie Helen is actually a very intelligent and perceptive person.
The dinner party proceeds without too much tension.† Bao-bao, Helenís son, is marrying for the third time.† He is a very persuasive salesperson for the Good Guys.† The funeral also passes with only a few hitches.† Pearlís daughters, Tessa and Cleo, both attend despite being rather young.† They were rather unprepared for the open-casket service.† Pearl cries but not for her Grand Auntie whom she didnít know very well anyway, but for her father Jimmy Louie who passed away twenty-five years earlier.† She never cried for him after the disaster that was his funeral.† Pearl takes Winnie home after the funeral and finds that Grand Auntie Du left a gift for her.† It is the altar of the Kitchen God; this God was actually an unfaithful man that took advantage of his wife but then ends up depending on his wifeís kindness.† He throws himself into the fire from guilt and shock and becomes the god that can determine whether people have good or bad luck.
Not long afterwards, Winnie calls Pearl and asks her to visit.† And she tells her story of her past.† She decides that it is safe to do so because an evil man whom she was married to in China, Wen Fu, has finally died.† She reveals to the reader that Wen Fu is Pearlís father and not Jimmy Louie.† Winnie begins by telling Pearl about being abandoned by her mother when she was a young girl.† After her mother leaves, Winnie is sent to live with her uncle and his two wives, New Aunt and Old Aunt.† While she lives with her uncle, Weili (Winnieís Chinese name) never feels as loved as her cousin Peanut.† On New Yearís of 1937, Peanut and Weili meet a man named Wen Fu while they are in the marketplace.† He appears very charming and flirts with Peanut.† Soon, Weili becomes their clandestine messenger, passing love notes between the two.† Wen Fu soon asks the matchmaker to make marriage for him into Weiliís family.† When he hears about Weiliís wealthy father, he does not ask for Peanutís hand but Weiliís.
Her father agrees to the match and provides a generous dowry.† However, Wen Fu immediately sells all the expensive furniture the family purchases for Weili.† She discovers that Wen Fuís family runs a shameful business.† They buy antiques and heirlooms from poor families and then sell them overseas to foreigners.† Soon after the wedding, Weili begins to discover Wen Fuís true character.† He is sexually and physically abusive.† Later, they move from the family home to Hangchow where Wen Fu is completing his pilot training.† This is where she meets Helen, then known as Hulan, who is wife to the Wen Fuís boss, Long Jiaguo.† Weili also discovers that she is pregnant.†
The war begins in China and nobody realizes it.† Weili notices that Wen Fu is very popular with the other pilots but scares them with his fits of rage and unpredictability.† She also notices that Hulan is able to control her husband wheareas she is continually abused and raped by her husband.† The pilots fly to fight for the first time and Weili wonders whether or not she would care if Wen Fu dies in battle.† They say that they were victorious but were actually surprised by the Japanese.† In their rush, they dropped bombs on their own, innocent people.† They are moved again to the city of Yangchow.† Here, Weili cooks lucky food using her own dowry money for all the pilots and meets a man named Gan.† He falls in love with her but dies early as was predicted in a prophecy.† As the war escalates and the Japanese move further inland, the pilots are forced to move again.† They spend only two weeks in Nanking.† During this time, Wen Fu steals a Weiliís dowry money and wastes it on a convertible which he promptly crashes in a fit of drunkenness.† They also get caught in an air raid while shopping and discovers that the Japanese dropped propaganda pamphlets.
That very day, Wen Fu, Weili, Hulan, and Jiagou, escape Nanking in a truck.† On their trip, they discover the terrible fate of Nanking.† The Japanese raped and pillaged the city.† They arrive together in Kunming and stay in a boarding house.† When Weili is nine months pregnant, she accidentally drops a pair of scissors, a symbol of bad luck.† Immediately, the baby stops moving and is stillborn named Mouchou, or sorrowfree.† Later, when she goes to buy a new pair of scissors since she refuses to use the one she dropped, she knocks over an entire table.† When she returns home, she finds that Wen Fu has gotten into a car accident, damaging one eye; a girl with him had died.† He is terrible to the nurses and when he returns home, takes out his anger on Weili.† No one steps up to help her, even when he publicly humiliates her.† A year after the accident, Weili gives birth to another daughter named Yiku.† Six months later, their servant girl quits because she was raped by Wen Fu and is pregnant.† When the servant girl dies attempting to abort the baby, Weili stands up to Wen Fu.† Angry, he slaps Yiku over and over; from then on, she becomes a very strange child.† One day, Yiku becomes very sick and Weili goes to the doctorís house where Wen Fu is playing mahjong.† He summarily dismisses her and tells the doctor that his wife is hysterical.† A few hours later, when the situation is even worse, she returns to the doctor and Wen Fu blames Weili for not having told him.† Yiku dies in the hospital.
When her son Danru is born, she does not bother to tell Wen Fu but returns home on her own.† She discovers a woman sleeping in their bed.† Wen Fu claims that it is the sister of a fellow pilot but it is obvious that he is sleeping with her, keeping her as a mistress.† In the meantime, Hulanís Auntie Du has also come to stay at the boarding house.† Weili and the mistress, Min, become friends of sorts.† Auntie Du confronts Weili about Min one day, informing her that Wen Fu is using her as a concubine and that she is pregnant.† Weili tries to use this as a chance to divorce Wen Fu, but he rages that she cannot tell him what to do.† The next day, Min is gone.† During the holiday season in 1941, a group of American fighter pilots hold a dance party for American and Chinese pilots.† It is here that Weili meets Jimmy Louie, a translator for the United States Information Service, and falls in love for the first time.† He was the one that gave Weili and Hulan their American names, Winnie and Helen.† He gave Wen Fu the name Judas, though Wen Fu did not understand the connotations behind that name.† He then asked to dance with Winnie.† When they returned home, Wen Fu began to threaten Winnie for dancing with the American.† Wen Fu forces her to sign divorce papers at gunpoint, then makes her beg him not to divorce her.† At first happy about the situation, she realizes that the divorce will separate her from Danru.† Still at gunpoint, Wen Fu then rapes Winnie.† The next morning, Winnie escapes with the help of Helen and Auntie Du, though they refuse to sign as witnesses for the divorce papers.† Wen Fu found her and forced to live with him again.
As soon as the war ends, Wen Fu, Winnie, and Danru return to Shanghai, her fatherís house, parting company with Auntie Du and Helen.† The house is in disrepair and Wen Fu takes advantage of his ill father-in-lawís position as a businessman.† Winnie goes to visit her Aunts with lots of love and finds out that Peanut has left her marriage and joined the Communists.† Though Peanut is considered a disgrace, the Aunts give Winnie her address.† When she goes to visit Peanut, she runs into Jimmy Louie and spends the afternoon.† The next day, they meet again and Winnie tells him about her marriage.† When she visits Peanut, she finds that there is a group of women who had escaped bad marriages and were willing to help Winnie.† Winnie and Jimmy make a plan of escape.† When she returns home, Winnie feels guilty about leaving her father behind who will be killed as a traitor by Wen Fu when she leaves.† However, she chooses her life over his but does tell him of her plans first.† Usually catatonic, in a moment of clarity, pulls three gold pieces out of a rod and gives them to her.† Winnie escapes successfully and lives with Jimmy Louie happy, though still in fear that Wen Fu would find her.† When two men come looking for, she decides to send Danru to live with Helen and Jiagou.† He dies there of a disease.† Soon afterwards, Wen Fu sues Winnie for stealing his son and family valuables, and leaving her husband.† Wen Fu had already destroyed the divorce papers and though Auntie Du testified on Winnieís behalf, she was sentenced to two years in prison.
Auntie Du manages to release Winnie from prison but Wen Fu had already forced the American Consulate to send Jimmy home.† He sends her love letters from America and tells everyone that they are already married.† When she is released, Jimmy arranges the papers necessary for her to leave the country.† However, before she leaves, she wants a valid divorce from Wen Fu.† Winnie and her friend Betty come with a plan to force Wen Fu to sign the papers in front of the woman he is currently with.† Unfortunately, Wen Fu comes to her home before she leaves, rapes her at gunpoint and attempts to steal her tickets. †She survives and leaves for America.† At this point, she tells Pearl that she is the daughter of Wen Fu.† Pearl reveals her secret of having multiple sclerosis.† They make plans for Helen, Winnie, and Pearl to return to China together to find medecine for Pearlís condition and to resolve Winnieís past.† Finally, Winnie purchases a little statuette without a name for Pearlís altar that Auntie Du gave her.† She calls the deity the Kitchen Godís wife, Lady Sorrowfree.