Here you will find a The Bonesetter's Daughter summary (Amy Tan's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.
P.S.: As an Amazon Associate, we earn money from purchases made through links in this page. But the summaries are totally free!
Ruth Young is an accomplished ghostwriter residing in San Francisco, trying to balance her professional life, her relationship with boyfriend Art, and his two adolescent daughters. Ruth's aging mother, LuLing, is a complex person with a history of mental struggles who now shows signs of dementia. This revelation leads Ruth to strive to understand her mother's past better. LuLing once shared a document detailing her past, but Ruth struggled with the Chinese text. After her mother's diagnosis, Ruth finds the remaining pages, gets them professionally translated, and moves in with LuLing to care for her. The translated manuscript unveils LuLing's story, born into a wealthy family of ink-makers in 1916 China. A significant figure in LuLing's life was her mute, scarred nursemaid, Precious Auntie. Precious Auntie's past is also a part of the document, which LuLing knows because of an older document passed down to her. Precious Auntie, educated and independent, was raised by a healer and bonesetter father. Her beauty led to proposals from two men - Chang, a coffin maker, and Baby Uncle, LuLing's youngest uncle. She chose Baby Uncle, but their wedding day turned tragic as bandits attacked, killing Baby Uncle and Precious Auntie's father. They believed the assault was orchestrated by Chang as revenge for his rejected proposal. Surviving the attack, Precious Auntie was taken to the Liu family's home. In her grief, she drank burning ink, leaving her mute and scarred. When she got pregnant with Baby Uncle's child, the Liu family disguised the illegitimate birth, with LuLing being adopted by Baby Uncle's eldest brother. Precious Auntie remained as her nursemaid, but LuLing was never told about her real parentage. This secret was revealed to LuLing when Precious Auntie committed suicide to prevent LuLing's match with Chang's son. LuLing later ended up in an orphanage, married, and relocated to America after World War II, where she raised Ruth alone. Understanding her mother's past makes Ruth more empathetic, leading to her moving LuLing into a care home and growing closer to her own family history.
The story begins with LuLing Liu Young presenting herself, her two spouses, and her child, Ruth Luyi Young. At the age of six, LuLing received a piece of paper with her family name on it from Precious Auntie, a mute and disfigured woman who cared for her deeply. Precious Auntie made her communication through writing, sign language, and gestures. The day LuLing received the paper, they prayed and then Precious Auntie burned it. Today, LuLing struggles to recall the name and seeks Precious Auntie's assistance, revealing that she is Precious Auntie’s biological child and the forgotten name is hers too.
Every August, following when she moved in with her partner, Art, Ruth Young inexplicably loses her voice. To handle this, she embraces a quiet week each year, a tradition she's kept up for the nine years she's been with Art. On this particular anniversary, a stressful trip to Lake Tahoe with Art and his daughters, Dory and Fia, leaves her restless. Ruth finds a document written in Chinese by her mother, LuLing, detailing her life story. Despite her poor language skills, Ruth attempts to decipher it, learning things about her mother she never knew. Feeling guilty for neglecting the document, she decides to hire a translator. The next day, Ruth copes with her cramped apartment and stressful life, feeling more like her mother as she juggles work and stepchildren. She chats with her best friend, Wendy, who reveals her elderly mom's surprising marriage to a young personal trainer. After taking the girls to ice-skating lessons, Ruth thinks about her relationship with Art. Friends deem it perfect, but Ruth feels ambivalence. She recalls their meeting and the misunderstanding that led to their relationship - she initially thought he was gay. She reflects on her romantic history, including a previous relationship that faded when her ex moved to New York. Art, a divorced father of two, was a much safer prospect. Later, Ruth attends to her domestic duties and chats with Wendy about their moms. The conversation prompts Ruth to recall a doctor's appointment for her mother, which she'd scheduled out of concern for LuLing's changing behavior.
Ruth, after a grocery run, ponders her frugal upbringing and struggles to focus on her work. Despite contributing to dozens of self-help and wellness books over 15 years, she yearns for recognition. Her mother LuLing, however, is proud of her daughter's achievements. Ruth tends to avoid confrontations, influenced by her mother's argumentative nature and limited English skills, which has often embarrassed her. LuLing's sister, GaoLing, despite immigrating at the same time, is fluent in English. Ruth is later than intended to pick her mother up due to household chores taking longer. Though LuLing is quite healthy for her age, Ruth is worried about her increasing forgetfulness. However, discerning changes in LuLing's mood is difficult as she has been chronically depressed and suicidal. LuLing resides in a humble home, renting the lower level to a tenant who complains about LuLing's erratic behaviour. LuLing, a talented calligrapher and painter, used to earn extra as a teacher's aide by offering Chinese calligraphy services to local businesses. She tried teaching Ruth Chinese writing and shared her own tutelage under Precious Auntie, who raised her. Ruth notices LuLing is disoriented, misplacing her bag and forgetting their doctor's appointment. Ruth reflects on her mother and aunt's complex relationship. Both women, who married brothers after relocating to America, had different life outcomes despite being close in age. LuLing, who married the elder brother, Edwin, seemed to have a bright future until his untimely death. GaoLing's husband, Edmund, however, became wealthy and respected, offering a stark contrast to LuLing's more challenging existence. LuLing saved her small inheritance to buy her current house, expressing resentment over her financial circumstances compared to GaoLing's.
Ruth and LuLing visit a health facility tailored for Chinese patients. LuLing's memory lapses cause Ruth to explain again about her cat's death, an event she'd already mentioned to LuLing. The doctor, though recognizing LuLing's great physical health, becomes worried when she avoids his straightforward questions. Her responses become more inconsistent and bewildering, leading Ruth to confide in the doctor about her mother's cognitive disorder, which she had observed for a while. The doctor advises further tests and a subsequent visit after a month. At dinner that evening, LuLing continuously chides Ruth about the girls' manners, making the meal uncomfortable for everyone present. In her younger years, Ruth often shifted schools, leaving her alone and bereft of friends. When Ruth was six, her mother humiliated her by reprimanding her publicly. In defiance, Ruth threw herself down a slide, breaking her arm. Interestingly, the incident led to sympathy and friendliness from her peers, and her mother became more affectionate. Amazed at this unexpected improvement, Ruth chose to remain silent, fearing her speech would ruin it. Her mother urged her to write instead, a suggestion that made her popular among her schoolmates. Ruth was taken aback when her mother started seeking her viewpoint, something she'd never done before. Ruth learned that her mother thought she could converse with the spirit of Precious Auntie. LuLing was desperate for Ruth to inquire of the spirit about forgiveness and any curse reversals, but Ruth was clueless about her mother's references. LuLing vowed to eventually go back to China to find the spirit's lost bones.
The story picks up a month later during the Full Moon Festival. Ruth organizes a family dinner which includes Art's family, Miriam with her new spouse and kids. Ruth is uneasy with this setup as Art's parents have always favored Miriam and continue to be close to her. Billy and Sally, Ruth's cousins, also attend with their families. Despite some tension, the dinner is successful, and Ruth is touched to see her loved ones around her. She gifts her mother and aunt a photograph of them as children, but is perplexed when LuLing calls Precious Auntie her mother rather than her grandmother. It confuses Ruth, who recalls Precious Auntie as LuLing's caretaker who passed away when LuLing was fourteen and instilled many folkloric beliefs in her. Ruth is worried that LuLing's aberrant behavior might indicate a mental deterioration. Her concern amplifies when her mother gifts her a faux pearl necklace that Ruth had given to LuLing years ago. She remembers it because she has always regretted it. LuLing, however, had always treasured it, assuming it to be valuable. As LuLing proudly presents it to Ruth, Ruth is silently overwhelmed with guilt.
Ruth and LuLing find out that LuLing has dementia in a doctor's appointment, a condition which LuLing can't comprehend its implications. Over the subsequent three months, LuLing's behavior shifts, becoming angrier and more unpredictable, causing discomfort for those around her. Ruth invites her mother to have dinner with her and her partner, Art, every night. Ruth and Art had scheduled a trip to Hawaii, but Ruth is torn about leaving her mother behind. Art proposes they hire a house cleaner and a nurse for LuLing, but Ruth is perturbed that he seems to ignore her emotional turmoil over the situation. Ruth starts feeling distant from Art and is anxious about their unmarried status. Ruth pretends to LuLing that the house cleaning service is complimentary, yet they struggle to retain a housekeeper. Ruth spends more time helping at LuLing's house as a result. Eventually, Art departs for Hawaii by himself, leaving Ruth relieved to have some time to recuperate; her job and health have been affected by the time she dedicates to her mother's care. One evening LuLing goes missing and Ruth is left worried when she doesn't answer her calls and is not in her house. After learning from a tenant that LuLing left wearing merely her pajamas, Ruth contacts the police. However, her worry turns to embarrassment when LuLing comes back shortly after. Worried about her mother's worsening condition, Ruth calls Auntie Gal, who offers to house LuLing temporarily.
Ruth, reminiscing about a disturbing childhood incident, recalls moving to Berkeley with her mother, LuLing, at the age of eleven. They rented a small house from a youthful pair, Dottie and Lance Rogers. Ruth often felt exasperated with LuLing, due to their tight living space and LuLing's constant demands for her to connect with the spirit of Precious Auntie. Intrigued by Dottie and Lance's dynamic and infatuated with Lance, Ruth was thrilled when invited to watch a film at their place. Despite LuLing's reluctance, Ruth manipulated a fake message from Precious Auntie to ensure she could go. During her visit, she unintentionally came into contact with Lance’s urine. Days later, in a class covering puberty and reproduction, Ruth misinterpreted a friend's explanation of conception, believing she was pregnant due to the previous incident. She contemplated suicide, then chose to confide in her friend, who then informed Dottie that Ruth was carrying Lance’s child. Ruth was taken aback by Dottie’s protective and confrontational response towards Lance. The misunderstanding led to a heated argument between the couple and Lance’s temporary absence. Upon learning the entire story, Dottie was horrified by the mix-up. Not long after, Lance returned, Dottie left, and Ruth found herself in an uncomfortable encounter with Lance. To escape the distressing situation, Ruth forged a message from Precious Auntie, persuading LuLing to relocate to San Francisco. Trusting the message, LuLing decided to move, and they have resided in San Francisco since.
Ruth is back at her mother LuLing’s home and starts cleaning up and rifling through her belongings. This triggers memories of Ruth's teenage years, when she was quite rebellious. Wanting a different life from her mother's, Ruth often vented her frustrations in her diary. Ruth had a rocky relationship with her mother during her adolescence, with one fight leading Ruth to write in her diary that she wished her mother would take her own life. This seemed to become a reality when Ruth learned from her Auntie Gal that LuLing had fallen from a window. Overcome with guilt, Ruth tended to her mother and became a more docile daughter. On her sixteenth birthday, Ruth was given a Chinese Bible and was promised a jade ring by LuLing. However, the years of constant fighting drove Ruth to abandon her diary somewhere in their apartment. Rummaging through the apartment, Ruth discovers a lengthy Chinese manuscript. She deduces that it's a significant portion of the document that LuLing gave her years before. Fearing that her time with her mother is running out, Ruth decides to have the entire document translated professionally. She also plans to talk to Auntie Gal about LuLing's past and wants to devote more time to her mother to gradually learn about her history. As part of her plan, Ruth decides to move in with LuLing.
In "Heart," LuLing recounts her life story, having been born in a small Chinese town to an ink-making family, the Liu clan. As a child, she lived in a large family compound teeming with relatives. However, LuLing shockingly discloses that "Baby Uncle," her father's youngest brother, is her actual biological father. Precious Auntie, a relative from a neighboring town, is introduced as a gatherer of bones used for fortune-telling and healing. As a child, LuLing is shown a secret cave filled with these "dragon bones" by Precious Auntie. Precious Auntie's upbringing was atypical for young women of that era, making her less desirable for marriage. However, two men, Chang and Baby Uncle, express interest in marrying her. Precious Auntie chooses Baby Uncle, which infuriates Chang. On their wedding day, the party is attacked, and Precious Auntie's father and Baby Uncle are killed. Precious Auntie suspects Chang organized the assault out of spite. "Change" starts with a significant shift in LuLing's life when archeologists become interested in the bone-filled caves around their town, and rumors about human bones begin to circulate. Despite the potential fortune, Precious Auntie refuses to sell the bones, leading to tension between her and LuLing. In a surprising turn of events, Chang sells some bones, which turn out to be human, earning him a hefty sum. The town is abuzz when a potential marriage match is proposed for LuLing from a wealthy family in Peking. Despite Precious Auntie's disapproval, LuLing is enticed by the prospect and travels to Peking to meet her potential husband's family. Upon her return, she reveals to Precious Auntie that she is likely to marry into the Chang family, to which Precious Auntie reacts with horror. In "Ghost," LuLing is formally invited to join the Chang family, causing further strain in her relationship with Precious Auntie. Days before she is set to leave, Precious Auntie gives LuLing a manuscript detailing her life story. LuLing dismisses it initially, only to learn from it later that Precious Auntie was her real mother. After Precious Auntie's suicide, the Chang family receives a warning that her ghost will haunt them, leading to the cancellation of LuLing's wedding. Tragedy strikes when the Liu family shop in Peking burns down, and they fear Precious Auntie's ghost is responsible. To protect themselves from further misfortune, the family decides to send LuLing to an orphanage. In "Destiny" when LuLing reaches a mission-run orphanage, she surprises them with her literacy and calligraphy. Impressed, they let her assist Teacher Pan with the older students. The orphanage houses 70 girls and babies, many illegitimate or disabled. The Americans, Miss Grutoff and Miss Towler, run the place, assisted by former students. Part of the orphanage is rented to scientists excavating Peking Man fossils. Teacher Pan's son, Kai Jing, a geologist, sometimes helps at the orphanage. LuLing often helps at the excavation site and cherishes a manuscript from Precious Auntie, which contains a dragon bone and her pre-scar photo. In "Effortless" LuLing and Kai Jing secretly plan to wed, but the news of Japanese invasion halts their plans. When her sister GaoLing arrives, revealing her troubled life in Peking, she devises a plan to stay in the orphanage. Later, LuLing and Kai Jing marry amid the looming invasion threat. However, their happiness is short-lived as Kai Jing is arrested by Chinese soldiers for not enlisting, then by Japanese, and later executed. In "Character" LuLing grieves for Kai Jing, feeling purposeless until the U.S. declares war on Japan and Miss Grutoff is arrested. Before leaving, Miss Grutoff leaves money and directions to evacuate the orphans. LuLing executes this successfully and settles with GaoLing, her father-in-law and a teacher at the old ink shop. Despite improving business, after war, GaoLing's husband sells the shop. Their dilemma is interrupted by news of ailing Miss Grutoff, who could take one person with her to the U.S. for medical care. GaoLing volunteers to go, promising to sponsor LuLing once situated. LuLing moves to Hong Kong to wait, hoping they will all reunite in the U.S. someday. "Fragrance" begins in Hong Kong, LuLing receives a letter from GaoLing stating that Miss Grutoff has passed away, and sponsoring LuLing is harder than anticipated. LuLing considers selling a valuable bone, but instead decides to work for her travel fare back to Peking. After securing a job as a maid, LuLing learns English and receives a letter from GaoLing about potential husbands for them both. When Fu Nan Chang threatens to reveal GaoLing's marital status in the U.S., LuLing buys his silence. Eventually, she sells the bone to fund her journey to California, after GaoLing secures a visa for her.
Ruth engages Mr. Tang to decipher her mother LuLing's story. As he works, Ruth stays with LuLing, explaining she needs her for a children's book project. Her time with her mother takes her back to her younger self and offers a new perspective on her relationship with her partner, Art. Upon completion, Mr. Tang shares his curiosity about LuLing's narrative with Ruth. He meets LuLing at dinner, relating to her like an old friend. Reading the translated story, Ruth discovers that her mother's assumed confusion was actually historical accuracy, changing her view of LuLing. Ruth shares her revelations with Art, who suggests that they consider an assisted living facility for LuLing. Initially, Ruth is hesitant but appreciates Art's involvement. Art devises a plan to persuade LuLing into trying out the facility, creating a fictitious letter about hazardous chemical levels near her home. Ruth admires Art's dedication and goes along with the scheme. They visit the chosen residence and despite the high cost, Art insists on paying. Ruth learns to accept others' generosity, and LuLing is excited about her new living arrangement, believing she is receiving preferential treatment.
Ruth seizes a private moment with GaoLing during her birthday celebration, revealing her knowledge about their mother’s past from the manuscript she found. GaoLing, surprised, presumes LuLing disclosed the information herself. She elaborates that LuLing was determined to keep their family's secrets hidden, with only Edmund being aware of the truth. Ruth discloses LuLing's manuscript was likely penned nearly a decade ago when she became worried about her memory. The idea of relocating LuLing to a care home also comes up. Despite initial resistance, Ruth convinces GaoLing to visit the facility, assuring her that every decision will require her consent, and suggests she read the document. GaoLing sheds light on the manuscript's characters. Chang, arrested for illicit activities post-war and eventually executed, left his family impoverished. Fu Nan passed away too. GaoLing's first husband remains a secret. Upon her father-in-law's death, she and Edmund felt empathetic towards LuLing's meager share of wealth. They split their inheritance and offered her half, which LuLing wisely invested for growth. Yet GaoLing forgets the vital information Ruth seeks: Precious Auntie’s real name. Their discussion is suddenly cut short when LuLing unexpectedly falls into the swimming pool, requiring Art’s rescue. The following day, Ruth transports some of her mother’s belongings to the care home. Later, she shares a candid dinner with Art, declaring their mutual love and desire for greater honesty and emotional closeness in their relationship.
The story picks up again a month later. LuLing has settled into the care home and is enjoying her blossoming bond with Mr. Tang. During a museum trip with Mr. Tang, Ruth, and Art, LuLing recognizes an ancient bone artifact as the "oracle bone" she once owned and sold. She also reveals her mother's name as Liu Xin Gu. Ruth initially feels thrilled but then realizes that “gu” means “bone” in Chinese and thinks her mother is just confused. This leaves her feeling disappointed as she continues to yearn for her maternal grandmother's family name. Despite this setback, Ruth is encouraged by the growing relationship between her mom and Mr. Tang. Later, Art proposes the idea of him and Ruth getting married.