The novel is a romantic and historical epic painted on a very broad canvas. It follows the fortunes of two people, William Leung and Margaret Han, from the mid-1960s through to the early 1990s. They are childhood friends in a small town in southwestern China. Then the Great Cultural Revolution divides them, and they follow separate paths to success in the Western world: William as a Wall Street tycoon and Margaret as a singer of Italian opera.
The background of the story is recent Chinese history, bracketed by two great upheavals: the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and the student movement of 1989.
The book's action ranges all over China, from the lush valleys of the southwest to the frozen plains of Manchuria, from the garrison settlements of occupied Tibet to elite apartments in Beijing, from the easy-going corruption of 1970s Hong Kong to the wakening bustle of post-Mao Shanghai. It then moves on to the international opera circuit, the boardrooms of Wall Street, and the habitations of the rich in Manhattan and Long Island's East End.
The book has an appendix listing all the operas, arias, singers and operatic terms used in the text.