Review: The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

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My favorite librarian at my high school library printed me off a college reading list she had stashed on her computer, and The Joy Luck Club was one of the books on there. I’ve always been curious to read Amy Tan–I’ve seen a story from this novel performed as a monologue, and I’ve read one of Tan’s essays on writing about her experience as a Chinese-American woman. Also, the public library didn’t have The Luxe in stock. Don’t judge me.I’m half French. Well, it’s more like seventy-five percent–my father is the son of a French woman and an American man, and I am the daughter of that French-American man and a French woman. Like any mother and daughter, we clash occasionally, and France, especially the French language, is sometimes the issue. I’m very proud to be so French, don’t get me wrong–there’s nothing quite so satisfying as watching someone nervously backpedal from an completely stupid statement they’ve made. (And as an asexual Franco-American feminist, people do a lot of backpedaling around me.)Because of this, the culture clashes between the mothers and daughters in this novel really hit home, especially when one of the daughters, as a teenager, grows sullen and won’t speak Chinese at home, even when prodded. That honestly hurt, because I do that with French. I can try and rationalize it as being tired after a long day of school, but it’s not that, is it?This novel, while it didn’t blow me away, has made me reexamine my relationship with my mother in the context of immigration. Anyone who is a child of two cultures needs to read this novel. It’s good for you.

So, uh, onto the actual book review, yeah?

This novel is a satisfying character study of the culture clash that is born out of immigration. It’s more than the sum of its parts, to be sure.

The novel centers around The Joy Luck Club in San Francisco, the second incarnation of a club started by Suyuan Woo. Four Chinese women get together every so often to play mahjong and feast, and each of these four women have a daughter–Chinese-American girls struggling to reconcile their identities with their heritage.

I almost feel bad for admitting I needed to constantly check the handy character list at the beginning of the book to keep the women straight, but the first person perspective in each chapter, narrated by a different woman, made it hard for me, because I’m not reading a name, I’m reading “I”.

The novel starts after Suyuan’s death, as her daughter, Jing-Mei, takes her place at the mahjong table at The Joy Luck Club. At the end of the game, her mother’s friends reveal that her mother had finally made contact with the twins she was forced to abandon during the Japanese invasion of China.

The remaining mothers then begin to tell stories from their lives, which are all so interesting and absorbing. The daughters follow, and while Jing-Mei’s journey is not dropped, this novel is really made up more of character studies than chapters.

Each of these could readily stand alone, save the chapters that bookend the novel, which makes it feel a bit slower than a more traditional novel. I found the mothers more interesting than the daughters, as the daughters dealt with more mundane issues and culture clash issues I’ve seen explored time and time again.

The mothers’ stories range from poignant to funny, and are often both. Lindo Jong masterfully manipulates herself out of an arranged marriage, in one of my favorite chapters of the novel, “The Red Candle”. The stories of the other mothers are not as cheerful, and some of them are downright horrifying, like that of An-Mei Hsu and her mother, Fourth Wife to a man dominated by his Second Wife.

We also get to see how these Chinese mothers view their Chinese-American daughters and their culture struggles, which is, honestly, just fascinating for me. Nearly all the culture clash stories I read in grade school dealt with the views of the children, never the parents, and I really think that’s something grade school kids should read.

The level of detail in this novel is astounding, from the homes in San Francisco to the stories set in China. Especially the stories set in China–Ying-Ying St. Clair’s chapter, “The Moon Lady”, is beautiful and expertly realized.

The pace of the novel gives me pause, since it’s composed of stories that can honestly stand alone. I hope Amy Tan’s other novels have more concrete plots. The daughters aren’t nearly as interesting as the mothers, except perhaps Waverly Jong, former child chess champion. A few references also date the book something fierce to 1989. The most glaring one is when Waverly expresses her concern that Jing-Mei is in danger of catching AIDS from her gay hairdresser. That particular anecdote seems out of character for Waverly, and feels like something Tan picked up along the way and had to include in the novel. It doesn’t feel natural, you know?

Bottom line: More a series of interweaving stories than a novel, The Joy Luck Club expertly explores culture clashes from the fascinating view of Chinese mothers of Chinese-American girls, and also from those Chinese-American girls’ less interesting perspective. Every child of two cultures should read this book at least once.

I rented this book from the public library.

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