This novel is about Pearl Louie and her mother, Winnie. The complexities and tensions between a mother and daughter are subtle, yet poignant at times. Tan describes the trials of being an immigrant in the United States through the character Winnie, and the problems of growing up torn between one's racial heritage, and one's national heritage (being born in the United States as a minority). The story is moved along by the discovery of a family "secret" that threatens to make every moment Pearl has lived, only a lie.
The beginning and end of the book describe the interactions between a first-generation Chinese-American woman and her thoroughly Chinese mother, who came to America fleeing the Communists in 1949. In wonderfully authentic voices, Tan shows us each woman through the other's eyes, and the rest of the family through both sets. The love, tension, and misunderstanding between immigrants and their children, by now a reasonably familiar theme, is done in a comfortable low-key suburban way, without exaggeration or unnecessary crisis.
The middle of the book is the story of the mother's life in China, a life with the usual quota of mistreatment, oppression, bad marriages, dead children, lifelong friends, and so forth. If the head and tail of the book are about what happens when your children grow up American, the middle is an example of why you would want them to.