Based on an actual historical event, Ford imagines the possible life of a young biracial Chinese/white boy who had been auctioned off at the World's Fair 1909 Seattle. In real life, apparently no one claimed the baby (in the book the child is a boy of about 12) and he disappears from history. Ford spins a tale of love, history, family (blood-related and not) and more.
Yung (later Earnest) watches his starving mother bury is newborn baby sister alive because their region in China is starving and the baby cannot be fed. Yung himself is given away by his dying mother and undertakes a perilous journey across the sea until he eventually ends up in Seattle. Earnest grows up and is eventually auctioned off at the World's Fair where he becomes a houseboy in a brothel and we watch him as he grows up. Ford splits the narrative so we see the adult Ernest navigating his wife's unreliable memory, being a father to two daughters and the closure of some of the issues of his youth.
The story in itself was a fascinating tale. But as other reviews note, it doesn't quite mesh together. Initially I found Ernest's journey really sad and compelling. But the love triangle of his youth, this period of history for sex workers in Seattle, etc. wasn't interesting to follow. I honestly found myself much more interested in the adult Ernest with his daughters (one a reporter who has a major role in revealing the past of her parents and one who is a showgirl-type) and trying to identify who Ernest eventually settled down with in the end. There were some clues in the "present" portions of the book but like other people I'm not sure splitting the point of views between his past and present worked and a straight telling (instead of the effort of keeping Grace's identity a mystery) would have been better.
In the end, though, I think I was left unsatisfied. I suppose what I really wanted was a happy ending for the actual little baby who was auctioned off and I'd like to think that he did manage to find his way in the world like Ernest did, even if it wasn't the easiest path. I appreciated that Ernest does get a relatively happy ending with closure but ultimately I can't say the book will leave much of an impression on me. It might not be a bad borrow for a library read or buy as a bargain book to read on a long trip and leave it behind if you're not interested.