The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is a delightful read. It takes on the ambitious task of narrating a story from the vantage point of 7 women from 2 different generations, and cultures, and in most cases it delivers. The book, with its 288 pages, is divided into 4 sections, each section dealing with a grouping of mothers or daughters. In this way it offers symmetry in relationship to a Mahjong game table, with its 4 sides.
Tan is a writer sensitive to the voices of her protagonists. Sharing their cultural background (Chinese-American), she dexterously weaves traditional elements to bring forth the strong voices of Suyuan and Jing Mei Woo, Lindo and Waverly Jong, An-Mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan, and finally, Ying-Ying and Lena St. Clair. Each character is teeming with complexities that Tan conveys with literary aplomb: from Jing-Mei’s diffidence to Suyuan’s staunch dutifulness, from Lena’s subservient nature to Ying-Ying’s wisdom, from Rose’s growing self-efficacy to An-Mei’s crushing grief and ensuing courage, and from Waverly’s arrogance to Lindo’s pride. These characters are raw and tangible with their faults and growing strengths. They are women of cunning and women of generosity, women who gossip and women who sacrifice almost everything.
What I love most about this book is the richness of Chinese culture that Tan astutely delivers; be it words in Mandarin and Cantonese or traditions such as the proper way to eat Lobster and make dumplings. Tan’s pride in her heritage is evident through the characters of mothers, and then gradually through the characters of the daughters, as they discover themselves and come to a place of understanding who they are through their mothers’ lenses. This is a joy to behold for mothers and daughters looking to read a book they can both enjoy. It explores the relationship between a mother and her daughter; the intrinsic one that many mothers maintain for life, the one where they know their daughters inside and out before their daughters know themselves.
It deals with generational conflict as each daughter rages against her mother’s lifestyle and principles, only to come to a place of deep respect and appreciation of the family bond that in most cases, cannot be broken. It deals with the loss of loved ones and the loss of self, and the epiphanies that come with each.
For all the praise I could shower on Tan, I felt that the final chapters of the book left me wanting. I was at times confused because certain character’s lives were left in a state of mishmash. Granted the book ends beautifully with the reunion of Jing-Mei Woo with her half-sisters, the last surviving remnants of her deceased mother’s legacy. However, the characters of Rose Hsu Jordan and Lena St. Clair leave me hungry for more development. Jing-Mei’s character develops the best of the 4 younger women (the daughters), and Waverly’s character maintains at an almost static rate. Rose’s character shows a lot of introspection and self-acceptance, as well as courage, as she finally stands up to her divorcing (and possibly cheating) husband, while Lena’s character makes me ache with a need to see her emerge from her shell of insecurity and unawareness.
Still, praise is definitely due to Tan in plenty for her ability to make me (and likely alot of her readership) feel a kinship with all her characters.
Would I recommend this book then? Absolutely! Not just for older women or younger women, or mother-daughter readers who want to enjoy a book together, but also for men who want to understand the Female Chinese Perspective, while also delving gently into the psyche of women, both young and old.
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