I think I remember reading The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan when I was a kid. My mother must have bought it, and I picked it up because I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on–even when I was too young to really understand it. So when I saw it on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40, I wasn’t sure I needed to read it again. In the end, I figured it was worth the reread since I didn’t remember anything about it.
The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four women who’d emigrated from China to the United States after WWII, and their relationship with their four American-born daughters. The book begins from the perspective of Jing-mei “June” Woo. Her mother has recently died and she has been invited to take the place of her mother at “The Joy Luck Club” mah jong table. The original Joy Luck Club began in China during the war when there was little joy or luck, but it was renewed when the four mothers all met and became friends at a church in the United States. June finds out at this gathering that her mother had left behind two children, two young girls in China that she had feared were dead. June has suddenly become a sister and now her mother’s friends want her to go to China, meet her sisters, and tell them about their now-deceased mother.
The thing about The Joy Luck Club is that it does not follow a traditional narrative format. I was ready to read about June struggling to get her mind wrapped around having sisters and her journey to China to meet them. Instead the book jumps to another isolated story about another one of the Chinese mothers. One of the most challenging aspects of this structure was that I had a very hard time keeping everyone and their stories straight. The stories were always told in first person, so besides the beginning of the chapter, you almost never saw the woman’s name while reading.
In addition, none of their stories had any obvious continuation from mother to daughter. I took notes on the basics and checked back regularly to keep everyone straight, but it was a challenge. It almost felt like reading a number of short stories and it was up to me to link them together. Most of the time, I did not see a connection between the mothers’ stories and their attitudes towards their daughters. Instead, Tan did something more subtle and realistic, showing quiet tensions and misunderstandings that stemmed from their different perspectives.
This book was well written. I learned some things about living in China and then the continuing challenges of raising “American” daughters. Some of the stories were haunting. However, I often have a problem connecting with these kinds of books. I like details and I like to delve deeply into a small number of characters’ lives. There were not enough details in any of the stories for me to get a clear picture of anyone’s life, so my recollection–even though I just finished the book–remains murky. It was hard for me to feel connected to the book–except, perhaps, for the crab dinner at the end. It is no wonder that I don’t remember anything from when I read it as a child.
In an attempt to remember some details of this book, I’m going to record the basics of each woman’s story below. This is primarily for my own recollection and not really part of the review. Spoilers, though.
Suyan Woo – recently died. Her first husband in China was in the army, and when Suyan was fleeing, she had to leave her twin daughters on the side of the road
June Woo – learns that she has two sisters in China and she didn’t know her mother at all
An-mei Hsu – her mother left her to become the fourth concubine of a rich man in a town far away; it turns out her mother was raped by the rich man and forced to join him. In the end, her mother kills herself to force the rich man to care for An-mei
Rose Hsu Jordan – her brother drowned in the ocean when she was a child; she is terrified of making any decisions; her husband, Ted, is in the process of getting a divorce and she doesn’t know what she wants
Lindo Jong – promised to marry an asshole when she was two years old, but she is able to eventually finagle her way out of the marriage and get to the United States
Waverly Jong – was a champion chess player until she has a fight with her mother and stops playing; daughter Shoshana; Waverly is now engaged to marry her second husband, but is afraid her mother won’t approve
Ying Ying St. Clair – fell off a boat, almost drowned, and got lost when she is only 4 years old; on the edge of mental illness after her son dies in childbirth
Lena St. Clair – architect with an odd relationship with her architect husband. Her mother doesn’t understand why they share the bills and buy or make expensive things that are weak or won’t last
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.