The Bonesetter’s Daughter begins with LuLing’s childhood memory of waking with her nursemaid, Precious Auntie, when she is six years old. Precious Auntie helps LuLing bathe and dress, like they do every morning, then they go to the ancestral hall to pray before breakfast. Precious Auntie, who is mute, uses her hands to tell LuLing that her family name, the name of the bonesetters, is written on a paper and she shows it to LuLing, asking her to remember, before leaving the paper on the altar. LuLing cannot remember Precious Auntie’s family name and begs her forgiveness, calling her mother.
Every year for the past nine years, Ruth loses her voice for a week. She embraces this event as a kind of vacation from her life. As the novel begins, Ruth is emerging from her week without a voice. She and her boyfriend Art are in a rut, his teenage daughters are rude and distant, and her mother LuLing is forgetful and difficult. In Ruth’s desk, amongst her pile of things to do, is a memoir written by her mother, LuLing, of which Ruth resolves to translate a small amount each day.
After taking Art’s daughters to the skating rink, buying groceries, working, and getting Art’s water heater fixed, Ruth goes to LuLing’s house to pick her up for a doctor appointment. Ruth has noticed that her mother has been behaving strangely. Although elderly, she is physically healthy, but she has become forgetful and that compounds the confusion in her life because LuLing does not speak English well.
Ruth takes LuLing to see Dr. Huey for her checkup. He pronounces LuLing strong and healthy but after asking her some questions, he tells Ruth her mother may have dementia. Ruth does not want to hear this and tells her boyfriend it might be depression. Ruth remembers a time from her childhood when she defied her mother and performed a playground stunt that resulted in a broken arm. During her convalescence, Ruth refuses to talk and instead uses a sand table to communicate. One night, her mother becomes convinced that Ruth is channeling the spirit of Precious Auntie. LuLing feels terrible guilt about Precious Auntie’s death and young Ruth, posing as Precious Auntie, reassures LuLing that she is not cursed.
Ruth has organized her family’s annual reunion, which is held at a Chinese restaurant during the Full Moon Festival. In addition to her family, Ruth has also invited her closest friends. At Art’s insistence, she has invited his ex-wife Miriam and her husband and children. Ruth is angry about their inclusion, feeling that Art continues to misunderstand what is important to her. At the end of dinner, Ruth gives out gifts. To the adults in her family, she gives framed enlargements of an old photo of her mother and her aunt, standing with their mother. LuLing insists that the woman is not her mother and that GaoLing is her sister-in-law and not her sister. Ruth takes this as further sign of her mother’s confusion.
Following more tests, the doctor confirms that LuLing has Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. Ruth tries to tell her mother about the diagnosis but LuLing insists her memory is fine. Her mother now joins Ruth, Art, and Art’s teenage daughters for dinner every night and Ruth tries to maintain her current busy lifestyle by hiring a housekeeper for LuLing. LuLing’s abrasive personality chases all caretakers away and Ruth has no choice but to send Art alone on their romantic vacation to Hawaii while she stays in San Francisco to take care of her mother. Ruth feels the distance between herself and Art growing. After a bad episode where LuLing wanders away from her house, Ruth sends her mother to stay with GaoLing so that she can work.
Ruth remembers back to a time when she and her mother lived in a rented bungalow and Ruth had a crush on their landlord Lance. He and his wife Dottie invite Ruth to come over and watch The Wizard of Oz on their new color TV. Ruth uses their bathroom after Lance and accidentally sits in urine that he has left on the toilet seat. A few days later she becomes convinced that Lance has impregnated her through his urine. Her friend Wendy tells Dottie that Ruth is pregnant and Lance and Dottie separate before they figure out Ruth’s misunderstanding. Lance now frightens Ruth. Her mother knows nothing of what’s going on and Ruth, pretending to channel the spirit of Precious Auntie, convinces LuLing to move to another part of town.
Ruth cleans her mother’s house while LuLing is staying with GaoLing. After she makes a dent in the clutter, Ruth begins exploring her mother’s old hiding places, where LuLing has stashed valuable jewelry, cash, and sentimental items in case of emergency. She also unearths her own teenage diary, remembering the events surrounding the last few entries. Teenaged Ruth, tired of her mother secretly reading her diary, dares LuLing to commit suicide instead of just talking about it all the time. After school the next day, GaoLing rushes Ruth to the hospital to see her mother, who has fallen from a second story window and hit cement. Ruth is devastated and devotedly takes care of LuLing while she heals. For Ruth’s birthday, LuLing gives her daughter an heirloom gold and jade ring that Ruth covets, a Chinese bible, and a photo of LuLing’s mother as a young woman. LuLing immediately takes the gifts back to hold on to until Ruth is older and this makes Ruth angry. At the time she was only concerned with the beautiful ring. Now she realizes the photo of LuLing’s mother is the same picture of Precious Auntie that LuLing was showing at the family reunion, insisting that this woman, her childhood nursemaid, was her mother. With these items, Ruth also finds another copy of her mother’s memoir, although this one is different. Ruth resolves to take care of her mother and make the translation of her story a top priority.
The point of view is now LuLing’s, as told in her memoir. She grew up in Immortal Heart village with the Liu clan. When she was a girl, the mountain village of Immortal Heart had already ceased to be a lucky place, but the Liu clan made ink sticks of famous quality and were comfortable in their profession. LuLing also recalls her mother’s story. Precious Auntie is the only daughter of a famous bonesetter from the nearby village of Mouth on the Mountain. She falls in love with Baby Uncle, the youngest son of the Liu clan, but is also sought after by Chang, the coffin maker, an abusive, greedy man. Her indulgent father turns down Chang and arranges for her marriage to Baby Uncle. On her wedding day, Precious Auntie’s caravan to Immortal Heart is robbed by Chang in disguise and her father and bridegroom are killed as a result. Having no other family, she continues on to Immortal Heart and the Liu clan takes her in as charity. In her grief, Precious Auntie swallows hot resin, scarring her beautiful face and making herself mute. When it becomes clear she is pregnant with Baby Uncle’s child, GreatGranny devises a story by which Precious Auntie and her child can stay with them without causing scandal. Precious Auntie becomes her daughter’s nursemaid and at Great-Granny’s insistence, Mother reluctantly claims LuLing as her eldest daughter.
In 1929, Mouth of the Mountain is the site of the famous archaeological discovery of Peking Man. The archaeologists seek more old bones to complete their skeleton and pay people to give up their artifacts. Precious Auntie, through her father, knows of a place where old bones can be found but will not sell them for fear of being haunted by the ancestor they belonged to. Chang the coffin maker rises in importance by selling the bones he stole from Precious Auntie. Following Great-Granny’s death, LuLing is sent to Peking to be matched with a husband, who turns out to be Chang’s son Fu Nan. Chang is hoping to get more bones through LuLing. LuLing and Precious Auntie have a fight when Precious Auntie learns who LuLing is betrothed to.
Precious Auntie writes down the story of her life while the rest of the clan is busy with LuLing’s wedding preparations. LuLing glances at the first few pages but refuses to read anything bad about her intended husband. Unable to stop LuLing’s marriage to Chang Fu Nan any other way, Precious Auntie kills herself, sending a note to the Changs, threatening to haunt them if the marriage happens. LuLing finally reads the rest of Precious Auntie’s story and learns that she was her real mother. Grieving anew, LuLing goes into the wild lands known as the End of the World behind her clan’s compound, looking for Precious Auntie’s body. Her only friend is GaoLing, who still treats her as a sister while GaoLing’s mother, angry at Precious Auntie, gives up all pretense. Not long thereafter, the clan’s shop in Peking burns down and the family fears ruin from damages owed to the adjacent shopkeepers. A man claiming to be a ghost catcher comes to their compound and secures Precious Auntie’s ghost in a jar and immediately the family’s luck turns around. Mother sends LuLing to an orphanage as an extra measure of security against Precious Auntie’s ghost returning.
LuLing arrives at the orphanage on Dragon Bone Hill, which is hosted at an abandoned monastery and run by American missionaries. The orphanage shares its space with scientists working at the nearby quarry where Peking Man was found. LuLing, who can read and write thanks to Precious Auntie, is both student and tutor at the orphanage school. Time passes and LuLing gets a letter from GaoLing. GaoLing married Chang Fu Nan instead and is very unhappy because she spends all her time finding money for her husband to buy opium. More years pass and LuLing and Kai Jing, a geologist and son of one of the teachers, fall in love.
LuLing and Kai Jing talk of marriage as the Japanese attack Peking. The morning following the first conflict, GaoLing appears at the orphanage and chooses to stay rather than return to her husband. Months later, a wedding is held for LuLing and Kai Jing but their happiness is fleeting; later that winter Kai Jing and his fellow scientists are conscripted into the Communist army to fight the Japanese. Two months later, they return, on the run from opposing forces. Kai Jing has a few tender hours with LuLing before Japanese soldiers find him. He refuses to tell them where the Communist army has gone and is executed along with thirty other recalcitrant villagers.
LuLing only survives her husband’s death because other people at the orphanage need her. When the United States joins the war against the Japanese, the orphanage is no longer safe and the girls escape in small groups, making the dangerous journey to Peking, where they find sanctuary with former students from the orphanage. LuLing, GaoLing, Teacher Pan, and Sister Yu live in the quarters at the ink shop. Together the four make the ink shop more successful. The war ends in 1945 and Chang Fu Nan returns home. Miss Grutoff, one of the Americans who ran the orphanage school, is released from a Japanese war camp and is very ill. GaoLing is chosen to accompany her back to the United States, for which LuLing is intensely jealous.
LuLing moves to Hong Kong to wait to hear from GaoLing. GaoLing writes to tell her that Miss Grutoff died soon after arriving in the United States. She is finding life in the United States to be difficult and expensive but she is trying to find a way to sponsor LuLing to join her. LuLing wants to return to Peking, far away in the north, but the train ticket is too expensive. She eventually takes a job working as a maid for an elderly Englishwoman and her daughter. GaoLing writes to tell her that she has met a pair of brothers, one of whom she would like to marry so she can be an American citizen. LuLing runs into Fu Nan who thereafter regularly pesters her for GaoLing’s address. When GaoLing tells LuLing she can be sponsored as a visiting artist, LuLing sells her mother’s oracle bone to afford her boat passage.
The point of view returns to Ruth, who is now living with her mother. Art has finally realized that his relationship with Ruth needs attention. Over the next few months, Art and his teenaged daughters come to miss and appreciate Ruth more now that she is not in their daily lives. The translator of her mother’s memoir, Mr. Tang, is infatuated with LuLing after reading her story. Ruth invites him over for dinner so that he can meet LuLing. They chat as if they are old friends reunited. Ruth is finally able to read the story of her mother’s life and learns more than she realized she did not know. She shares the memoir with Art as they draw close to each other again. Art suggests an assisted living home for LuLing but they have to trick her into going there because she would not go along with it if she knew what it really was and how much it costs.
The family gathers at GaoLing’s house for her birthday. Ruth finds a private moment with her aunt to reveal to her that she now knows Precious Auntie is her grandmother and understands their whole history in China before emigrating to the United States. GaoLing is relieved that it is no longer a secret and tells Ruth what became of the different people they left in China. She also reveals to Ruth that LuLing used to successfully trade on the stock market and now has a large amount of money tucked away in an investment account. They are interrupted when LuLing falls into the pool after seeing a vision of her mother, Precious Auntie; Art rescues her. The following evening, Ruth and Art celebrate ten years together over dinner at a restaurant. Their relationship is on the mend.
Ruth, Art, LuLing, and Mr. Tang visit the Asian Art Museum for an exhibit on Chinese archaeology. Ruth and Art delight in watching the affection between LuLing and Mr. Tang. They come upon an oracle bone and talk about LuLing’s grandfather, the famous bone doctor. She suddenly remembers her mother was called Liu Xing, ‘‘shooting star,’’ and her grandfather’s family name was Gu or ‘‘bone.’’ Ruth is not impressed—these names are descriptive rather than actual. Later that day, Art casually suggests they marry and Ruth agrees. GaoLing contacts relatives back in China and learns of Precious Auntie’s family name. Like LuLing said, it is Gu but GaoLing explains to Ruth that in Chinese this spelling of gu means ‘‘gorge’’ and not ‘‘bone.’’ Precious Auntie’s personal name was Liu Xin, which means ‘‘remain true.’’ She was called Liu Xing by some people because comets, which look like shooting stars, indicate bad luck. Ruth’s grandmother’s name was Gu Liu Xin.
The events of the novel take place over the course of a year. It is August again, but Ruth does not lose her voice for the first time in many years. She feels free, finally, of the superstition her mother brought her up with. LuLing seems to grow happier as she forgets all the bad things that happened to her. Ruth is happy for her mother and feels connected to her past. Although she has not lost her voice, she still takes this time for herself to write a story for herself, her mother, and her grandmother.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Amy Tan, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.