This is an 80 page novella and 8 short stories, all concerning lonely people, and mostly set in present day China.
The final line of the book, and of the eponymous story, sums them all up, "They were lonely and sad people... and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness", and that glimmer of hope is what ensure this is not a depressing collection.
"Kindness", the novella is about a 40 year old single woman in Beijing, alternating between her young adulthood (including a stint in the army) and her present life as a teacher of maths - despite her love of literature. In fact this is one of three stories in the collection that has a character who loves Dickens. The elderly neighbour who triggers this interest has some similarities with Miss Havisham in Great Expectation and seems to treat Muyan as an Estella figure. She believes that without love, one can be free and tells her, "The moment you admit someone into your heart, you make yourself a fool" and "Love leaves one in debt... best if you can start free from all that". Muyan thinks she has never experienced love and yet reading her account of her life, the reader is likely to think otherwise.
"A Man Like Him" is about a bachelor and retired teacher, living with his aged and ailing mother. It explores the enduring ramifications of public accusations, and the bond they can create.
"Prison" was the weakest story, because I found too much of it implausible. It concerns a Chinese American couple who, when their teenage daughter dies, return to China in search of a surrogate, even though it's the woman's eggs, rather than womb that are the problem.
Aphorisms on the general theme include the observation that at a funeral "one has to repeat words of condolence to irrelevant people"; "animosity is easier to live with than sympathy, and indifference leaves less damage in the long run"; "It is our nature to make a heaven out of places to which we can never return";
"The Proprieteress" is an oldish shop keeper who takes in needy women and children to help them start new lives. It fell a little flat at the end.
"House Fire" is the most amusing. A group of retired old women set up a detective agency to investigate alleged affairs, as part of a moral crusade. The different backgrounds and personalities of each woman are carefully and interestingly contrasted, including "the most harmlessly nosy person one could meet in life, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.