The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 3
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In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. With wit and wisdom, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between these four women and their American-born daughters. As each reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined…
If you only enjoy plot-driven novels, The Joy Luck Club is definitely not for you. I don’t know if “novel” is even the most accurate description, it was more like character vignettes. Possibly fictional essay collection. Regardless of what you want to call it, the book follows four Chinese immigrants and their daughters, and explores what it means to be a mother, daughter, and Chinese-American by looking at snapshots moments of their lives.
The writing was gorgeous. I felt so immersed in the characters and the culture. While I was reading it I really felt what it must be like to be an outsider in your own country. I felt as though I understood what it’s like to be American, and to at times want to distance yourself from your ethnicity and at other times long to be closer to it. Obviously this is something I can’t really feel or truly understand, but through the sheer brilliance of this book I felt that I did.
I was also enchanted by the setting of early 20th century China. Typically a Chinese historical fiction would be set in an earlier time that feels more exotic and unfamiliar. But between the wars China was simultaneously old-fashioned yet surprisingly modern. It wasn’t stereotyped at all, and felt completely authentic.
I loved the moms. I adored their combination of silent strength and brash certainty. They were about the same age as my own grandmother, and I was strongly reminded of her, even if she was a bit less of a know-it-all. But the women weren’t ashamed to be themselves, flaws and all. They made me groan good-naturedly, but I felt a genuine connection to them too. Being mothers was a defining part of their lives, it was a huge part of who they were. And it broke their hearts that their daughters were unable to understand that.
I didn’t much care for the daughters. They were pretty typical baby boomers, very concerned with their own selves and lives, and more concerned with appearances than their friends. They blamed their mothers or their Chinese-ness for all of their problems. Which, don’t get me wrong, the 50’s Chinese parenting style is not one we would approve of today. But for goodness sake, it’s not your mother’s fault if you are incapable of making a single decision, or of standing up for yourself. I especially was hurt by how the daughters dismissed their moms. I guess I did that in my young adult years as well, and maybe it’s a normal part of growing up. But it bothered me. Then again, I think it was supposed to.
My only criticism of this book is that I had a hard time connecting the young Chinese women of the past with their present selves. The women in the historical timeline were bursting with character, while the mothers of the present were pretty stereotypical old Chinese ladies. I think that’s because their daughters, who are telling the present-day story (at least, present at the time of publishing!) understood their mothers so badly. But my inability to make a connection there made it hard for me to keep up with which stories went together, and therefore made it hard for me to follow any character development.
I had heard this book was about mother daughter relationships, so I guess I figured at some point all parties would confront each other and work out their problems. But instead it was like a glimpse into what it’s like. What it MEANS to be a mother and daughter. How impossible it will always be to understand each other, but why it’s worth it to try. I feel like I learned so much, and I’m itching to call my own mom and talk to her, to tell her how much I love her.
If you’ve never picked up The Joy Luck Club, I strongly recommend it! This is one we’re going to remember.