This book is the autobiography of a young Chinese girl, Adeline Yen Mah. Born the fifth child to an affluent Chinese family, her life begins tragically. Adeline’s mother died shortly after her birth due to complications bought on by the delivery, marking her as cursed, or ‘bad luck’, by her siblings. This situation is compounded by her father’s new marriage to a young French-Asian woman who has little affection for her husband’s five children. Niang proves to be difficult and distant towards all of the children, particularly Adeline, whilst favoring her own younger son and daughter born soon after the marriage. Denied love from her parents, she finds some solace in relationships with her grandfather Ye Ye, and her Aunt Baba, sympathetic-yet-weakened adult figures. Adeline immerses herself in striving for academic achievement in the hope of winning favor from her father, who reacted positively to her medal for academic success.
When the Japanese take over mainland China, her father disappears from their hometown of Tianjin for an extended period of time. Soon after, Niang and her older boy follow. The next couple of months are considered wonderful, since the children are under the care of their grandparents, Nai Nai and Ye Ye. However, Nai Nai's death leads to the return of her father and their move from Tianjin to Shanghai. There, her father has bought a large mansion where the entire family is supposed to live.
After standing up to Niang's ill treatment of Youngest Sister, Adeline suffers the worst at the hands of her stepmother. She is denied carfare, frequently forgotten at school at the end of the day, and whipped for daring to attend a classmate’s birthday party against Niang’s wishes. Adeline records her entire childhood, through several schools and houses, through the people she meets and one very special duckling pet – Precious Little Treasure (or PLT for short) that she cares for. She records her sister’s wedding, her school friends, and her on-going quest for knowledge.
Adeline finds great success at school and gets elected as class president, a time of momentous joy for her and her classmates. However, when her classmates choose to bring the celebration to her house, her parents lash out and threaten to move her to a far away school. Niang's brusque nature and her father's ambivalence shock Adeline's school friends, who rally about her on the next day of school. However, when she gets home, she is shocked to find out that she is being sent to a boarding school in Tianjin immediately. Her ensuing goodbyes with Aunt Baba and Ye Ye are sorrowful, but filled with uplifting words. On the flight over, when filling out her new school enrollment record, her father forgets the spelling of Adeline's Chinese name, adding insult to injury.
Incredibly, her time at her new school (a convent in Tianjin) is capped by its desertion with the inevitable march of the People's Liberation Party. After being inadvertently saved by her lovely aunt from Niang's side of the family, Adeline returns to live with her family, now in Hong Kong. She is quickly sent to another boarding school, Sacred Heart. Even though Adeline is repeatedly moved up to grades above those of her peers, it is only when she wins an international play-writing contest in high school that her father finally takes notice and grants her wish to attend college in England. Despite her parent’s heartbreaking neglect, she eventually becomes a doctor and realizes her dream of being a writer.