Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Joy Luck Club

I began 2015 hoping to finally read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two...or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; The Joy Luck Club is the first one reviewed here.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s 1989 debut novel, got such a good critical reception that it firmly established her literary reputation.  Tan has now written six additional novels, one novella, one work of nonfiction, and some children’s books, but none has received the level of acclaim earned by The Joy Luck Club. 

The novel centers itself on the mahjong club started by four Chinese women who came to the United States after fleeing the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II.  After becoming friends as part of San Francisco’s Chinese community, the women started the club as a way to socialize and enjoy each other’s cooking.  (Their husbands come for the food.)  By the beginning of the novel, however, one of the women has died and been replaced in the club by her American daughter.

Tan structured the novel into four sections of four interlocking stories each in which she explores the relationships between the elderly women and their daughters.  The stories emphasize how little the daughters know (or care) about their mothers’ pasts and how manipulative and competitive their mothers are.  These are stories about mothers who often hurt their daughters and, in turn, about daughters who even more often hurt their mothers.  But in the end, it is a story of what happens when mothers and daughters finally learn to forgive each other – as difficult a chore as that usually is.

The first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Miles Away,” is introduced by Jing-Mei, whose deceased mother is credited with the founding of the Joy Luck Club.   Jing-Mei’s introduction is followed by three stories in which each of the surviving elders tells a story about her childhood in China.  Section two, “Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” in turn, allows each of the American daughters to recall a key incident or influence from her own childhood in San Francisco.

Amy Tan
It is in the book’s third section, “American Translation,” that the reader learns just how difficult it has been for each of the older women to raise a daughter in the U.S.  It becomes apparent from the stories told in this section by the daughters that their mothers’ efforts to turn them into highly successful, competitive women have not been entirely successful.  The younger women, having now survived all the trials of first generation Americans, still resent the degree of intrusion into their lives that their mothers insist upon.

Finally, in the fourth section of the book, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” the mothers recall stories of their own young adulthood, that period during which they were most active in trying to form the personalities of their daughters.  With this section, the influences upon both generations of women are exposed for what they are, and the circle is closed.  Now it is up to them to find ways to forgive, understand, and love each other.

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