Book Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I recently finished Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club which I somehow managed to escape reading throughout my high school and college careers.  Asian-American literature seems to be lacking in our curriculums across the country – something I hope is remedied in the near future.  Tan’s novel follows four sets of mother/daughters – the mothers all from the China and the daughters all first generation Americans.  Interestingly, Tan begins her story with a father:

“My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club.  I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.  My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts.”

Normally, I would have stopped this blog quote after the first sentence, but this time I couldn’t.  Every sentence Tan has written demands attention and is so essential to her stories and their lasting resonance.  This flow and seamless stitching is so remarkable for a novel that began as separate short stories.

The four mothers tell their tales of immigration, growing up in China, being women, and becoming mothers almost desperately so that their daughters won’t forget their Asian heritage, but more importantly, won’t forget the truth about who and what their mothers were and are.  The daughters strive to separate themselves from their mothers, to find their own identities as American, modern women despite the pull of their foreign inheritances.  The push and pull of new and old, east and west is so strong that at times I felt too outside of the story to appreciate the delicacies and details.  Almost like I was eavesdropping on a forbidden conversation that was never meant for me – someone who has never even been outside of America.  My ancestors immigrated long ago during the 18th and 19th centuries, far too disconnected from the present day.  But that’s exactly what these mothers are afraid of – that their children, grandchildren, and so forth will eventually erase every lingering characteristic of their family’s origin – and then I feel guilty all over again.  My husband (who has total street cred since he moved from Taiwan in 1987) assured me that this guilt is something deeply felt among all children of recent Asian immigrants.

Many times I felt this novel was teaching me lessons about my husband’s family that I had never been able to understand – lessons that my husband couldn’t translate into words (he prefers movies!).  One scene that struck me was the definition of how an Asian mother shows her love for her daughter, “not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab”.  I rarely go out to eat with the hubs and his parents because they always push food on me, forcefully encouraging me to eat loads of dishes that utterly disgust me.  That behavior would pass as rudeness at my house, but they just want to show me who they are – they want me to like them, to be a member of the family and food is such a huge symbol of family in Asian culture.  To say no is to reject family – you have to eat the sea urchin that is still moving!

Sorry for the digression!  All the Litwits should read The Joy Luck Club.  Why?  Because we’re all someone’s daughter and many among us are mothers.  And sometimes we need a reminder of why these roles and relationships are so important – and how these familial bonds tie, not just our immediate families, but our global families together.

Rating – 4/5

Pages – 288

Published – 1989

Scene from the movie:

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