Friday, July 7, 2017

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: A review

Relationships between mothers and daughters are often fraught with constant stress and worry on the mother's part and rebelliousness and defiance on the daughter's part as she struggles to assert herself and grow independent of the mother's restraints. Having been both a daughter and a mother of daughters, I see the conflict from both sides. 

No mother/daughter relationship could be more fraught, however, than that of Chinese mothers and daughters. At least that is the message that I take from Amy Tan's much acclaimed and truly wonderful book.

This book tells the stories of a group of Chinese women, immigrants to this country living in San Francisco, and their daughters, all born in America and all American in the fullest sense. The elder women emigrated to escape the tragedy and poverty of their native country, but, in their new country, they did their best to establish and preserve the culture which they knew and revered. They waged their battle to protect and keep their daughters safe in a society that did not always value them. In their efforts to do that, they often terrified the daughters about existential - or imaginary - dangers that awaited them if they strayed from the straight and narrow path laid out by the mothers.

The Chinese women were strangers in a strange land and one of them, Suyuan, had the idea of starting a monthly mah jong game, where four friends would meet to play, to talk and eat, and to provide support for each other. It was a way of maintaining the Chinese culture in the new country. This was the Joy Luck Club.

As we enter the story, Suyuan has recently died and her daughter June Mei Woo has been invited to take her place at the mah jong table. The other three women at the table are adopted family - aunties - to June. They have all celebrated festivals, birthdays, weddings, and other life experiences together over the years, and the other daughters of the group, Lena, Waverly, and Rose, are, like June, interested in pursuing the American dream and not so much in preserving the Chinese cultural experience.

The stories of all these women, mothers and daughters, are told in vignettes that alternate back and forth between generations. June's voice is the connecting tissue that ties them all together.

There is a shock awaiting June in her first meeting with the Joy Luck Club. She learns that she has two sisters back in China. They are twins that her mother was forced to abandon as the Japanese were invading her province during World War II. The twins were raised by a peasant woman, and, after many years of searching for them, they had recently been found, alive and well. But word that they had been located arrived after Sujuan's death. Now, the Joy Luck Club tasks June with traveling to China with her father to meet her half-sisters and deliver the news of their mother's death. 

This book was, of course, a groundbreaker when it was first published in 1989. It was the first to really explore some of the difficult truths of Asian mother/daughter relationships and the kind of psychological warfare that often prevails as one generation schemes to control - or, as daughters, to escape - the other. Although the book was later criticized in some quarters for the often negative portrayal of Chinese men and the fact that all of the American daughters of the Chinese immigrants married Caucasian men, I feel that the story holds up well. It is brilliantly plotted and the characters come alive as each tells her own story. It's one of those books that I have intended to read for years but somehow never got around to. I'm glad I finally did.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars    

4 comments:

  1. Mothers/daughters relationships are fraught with drama. What better way to explore that than through literature? I'm glad you loved this one; it sounds a little like Lucy Barton, no?

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    1. That's a canny observation, Carmen. There are similarities between Lucy Barton's and June Mei Woo's stories and between Amy Tan's and Elizabeth Strout's method of telling their stories. Each is excellent in its own way.

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  2. I read this one back when it was newly out. Loved it. Those criticisms you mention seem silly. Fiction shows the particulars, not the generalities.

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    1. It sometimes seems to me that critics are straining to find something to criticize in order to justify themselves. I agree that these criticisms are silly.

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