This novel contains four sections, each beginning with depicting a stage in the life cycle. The four stories in each section explore the relationship between the mothers and the daughters at the same stage. One series of stories focuses on Suyuan Woo, who comes to America in 1947, having lost her family, including twin daughters, during war. She does not know her daughters were rescued. Now remarried, she settles in San Francisco, has a daughter, Jing-mei (June), and starts a Joy Luck Club similar to one in China with three other women. The four form strong friendships. As she grows up, Jing-mei and her mother struggle to understand one another. They never completely resolve their differences, and Suyuan dies unexpectedly. At the next meeting of the Joy Luck Club, her mother's friends tell Jing-mei that Suyuan's twin daughters have been found. They give her a check so she can visit them. As the novel ends, she meets her sisters in Shanghai.
A second set of stories focuses on An-mei, who lives with her grandmother because her mother has been disowned. When An-mei is nine, her grandmother dies; and An-mei leaves with her mother to live in the home of a wealthy man and his other wives. An-mei learns how her mother was forced into a dishonorable second marriage and why she has no control over her own life. Her mother's subsequent suicide provides An-mei a better life. As an adult An-mei comes to San Francisco. She and her husband have seven children, including Rose. Rose marries Ted, a dermatologist, who has an affair and divorces her. Rose is overwhelmed but recovers. The third series of stories focuses on Lindo. She marries Tyan-yu, but he never sleeps with her. Unable to .
tell her domineering mother-in-law the truth, she devises a clever plan and is released from her marriage honorably. She comes to San Francisco and marries Tin Jong. They have three children "Winston, Vincent, and Waverly.