Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Title: The Joy Luck Club
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons (1989)

In a last minute switch we won't be starting our year off with three translations (never fear, our original plan for this is only slightly delayed so the translation fun will continue next month) but since this book explores the lives and relationships of four women who move country, I'm going to say it fits in well with the international theme we've got going so far. 

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Joy Luck Club
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Jing-mei "June" Woo is asked to fill her mother's spot at the mah jong table her mom and friends have going at the Joy Luck Club. The first Joy Luck Club her mom started was in China before she immigrated to the US. The club was started again with new friends in San Fransisco. June has been asked to fill the spot due to her mother's death. The first night she goes she learns that her mother has been secretly searching for the twin daughters she lost during WWII in China. This revelation is the thread that binds the narrative and makes June realize:

In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.

From here, the reader is taken through a series of vignettes that tie the history of the mothers to the present of the daughters.

There's a lot about this type of book that's going to hook me right away: mothers and daughters, history, multiple POVs, multi-generational stories, and character insight at various ages. All of these structural elements really draw me in as a reader. Add to that the fluid writing style and I found this a quick, easy read. Several lines made me laugh out loud and many moments made me happy to be there with the characters. I defy anyone to resist this moment with Lindo Jong:

So you can imagine how happy she was when they forced her to tell the truth about her imperial ancestry.

One aspect of the style never clicked with me and that was the choice to do every POV in the first person. Again, this is a multi-generational story and it includes 8 POVs. Now, I'm a sucker for multiple perspectives as I love how a character begins to take shape in your mind and then a new perspective comes along and just might demolish what you were building. However, when you have 8 people telling stories that include a least 3 generations it can get very hard to tell characters apart. When most of what you are reading is "I, Mama, or Auntie" and no one's name you don't have an anchor to bring that story back to. I was often flipping back to remind myself of which childhood went with which adult.

Interestingly, I got as much out of reading about The Joy Luck Club as I did actually reading The Joy Luck Club. It's a book that's always been on my list since it (and its movie adaptation) is super famous and tons of people have read it. I really didn't know any details other than that it was about immigrant mothers and their daughters. While I was reading it, I found much to enjoy. I loved the subtle humor and the small ways the moms would catch out their kids with far more perceptiveness than they were given credit for (who can't relate to that moment when we have to look at our parents and realize they probably understand a bit more about our lives than we'd like them to?). Also, as someone who has spent a fair bit of time in San Fransisco I really liked the neighborhood details and various descriptions.

However, while I was reading I also found much to give me pause. As an outsider to this experience, I don't come from an immigrant or Chinese family, I think that if you, dear reader, have any curiosity as to why this novel is hugely popular but not universally admired a few google searches will be more illuminating than anything I can write here.

I'm gonna leave this one as recommended but with reservations. I'm reminded of "the danger of a single story.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
The Laughing Policeman by Sjowall and Wahloo


  1. Fine review, Rachel. And thanks again for putting up with my inadvertent skip over of a certain Swedish crime novel. I guess I felt the pull of this story, especially the immigrant storyline involving China, and to re-watch a film I'd hadn't seen in twenty-odd years. I think I felt similarly toward the novel as you did.

    Yeah, there were moments that gilded a smile or recognition on my face. Seeing aspects of my own mother and grandmother represented on the page. But getting lost on occasion via the first-person vignettes on who of the four we're examining. Still, found it easy to plow through the material and appreciate Tan's writing style.

    Glad I finally caught up to the source book for the film, and acknowledging my own selfish nature. [see mom…you were right, of course]

  2. No problem to switch. I'm just happy it was a snappy read. :)

    There were some definite similarities between this novel and last month's so I'm not surprised you again found some personal connections. I think that's pretty cool actually.

    The first person POVs were pretty difficult huh? It was certainly out of place for such an otherwise smooth read.

    Glad we did this one as it's a book I'd been curious about for a while now.