Adeline's cruel family considers her as bad luck since she caused her mother's death in child birth and they don't pay attention to her throughout her early childhood. This is the story of her struggle for acceptance and how she overcomes the odds to prove her worth. Born the fifth child to a wealthy Chinese family, Adeline's life begins tragically. Adeline's mother died two weeks later after her birth due to complications brought on by the delivery, and in Chinese culture she is considered bad luck. This situation is compounded by her father's new marriage to Jeanne Prosperi (referred as "Niang", an alternate term for "mother" in Mandarin Chinese), a Eurasian woman who has little affection for her husband's five children. She displays overt antagonism and distrust towards all of the children, particularly Adeline, while favoring her own younger son, Franklin, and daughter, Susan (Jun-qing) born soon after the marriage. Niang is also responsible for renaming all Adeline and her siblings: her eldest sister becomes Lydia (Jun-pei); her three older brothers are renamed Gregory (Zi-jie), Edgar (Zi-ling), and James (Zi-jun) respectively, while Jun-ling is renamed "Adeline."
The book outlines Adeline's struggle to find a place where she feels she belongs. Denied love from her parents, she finds some solace in relationships with her grandfather (Ye Ye) and her Aunt Baba, but they are taken from her. Adeline immerses herself in striving for academic achievement in the hope of winning favor, but also for its own rewards as she finds great pleasure in words and scholarly success. She progresses in some things that her father and step-mother had never expected, for example at the first week of school she receives a medal for topping her class.
While at boarding school in Hong Kong, Adeline is taken away by her chauffeur. She is told that her grandfather has died. While at the funeral, Adeline openly weeps, while her stepmother and her father look on stony-faced. The rest of her siblings appear indifferent through the ceremony and don't show any heartache from the loss of this family member who loved them so much. Her love for her grandfather is resonated when she reads King Lear, finding it as inspiration to submit a work of writing for an international play-writing competition. She wants to go to study at a university in England but is not sure her parents will want her too.She is worried about what will become of her after she finishes school.
While playing Monopoly with her friends at boarding school, Adeline is interrupted and taken home by her chauffeur. She meets her father in his room ("the Holy of Holies"), where he tells her that she has won first prize in the international play-writing competition. Adeline asks him if she may attend school in England with her brother. When asked what she intends to study, she says she wants to study in the field of literature. Her father rejects her idea and prefer her to go to medical school and specialize in obstetrics. Adeline finally gets something she has been longing for, a chance to follow her dreams and to get away from her stepmother, Niang. She is able to go to college in England along with her third brother.