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Classic review: The Joy Luck Club

The story of a Chinese-American "bridge" club.

By Merle Rubin / March 14, 2010

The Joy Luck Club By Amy Tan Vintage Books 288 pp., $13.95

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on April, 21, 1989.] Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is a touching, funny, sad, insightful, and artfully constructed group portrait of four mother-daughter relationships that endure not only a generation gap, but the more unbridgeable gap between two cultures.

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The Joy Luck Club is an informal "institution'' started by Suyuan Woo upon her arrival in San Francisco in 1949. Suyuan finds three other Chinese immigrant women to play mah jongg, cook and consume special foods, tell stories, gossip, invest in stocks, and plan for joy and luck. In the years that follow, the club links the four families, enabling them to pool resources and keeping them in touch with their past as they take on the challenges of adjusting to a new country.

Nearly 40 years after the first meeting, as the novel opens, Suyuan Woo has died and her place at the mah jongg table is assumed by her 36-year-old daughter, Jing-mei. Like many another American-born child of immigrants, Jing-mei has little understanding of her mother's values or the world that shaped them, although recently, the general interest in ethnicity has prompted her to revive her Chinese name, "Jing-mei,'' in preference to the American "June May,'' and has made her more curious about her roots.

When her Joy Luck "aunties'' (Lindo Jong, An-mei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair) offer Jing-mei a trip to China to meet her long-lost half sisters, whom Suyuan was forced to abandon as infants while fleeing war-torn Guilin, the "aunties'' (now edging into their 70s) urge Jing-mei to tell her half sisters the story of the mother they never knew. The trouble is, Jing-mei feels she never really knew her mother, either - a feeling shared by the other Joy Luck daughters: Waverly Jong, Rose Hsu Jordan, and Lena St. Clair. The daughters' difficulty in comprehending their mothers is echoed by the mothers' frustration at not being able to pass on the benefits of their accumulated wisdom and experience.

The 16 linked stories that make up this novel fill in both sides of the gap: four sections of four stories each, told by seven voices. In the first section, "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,'' we hear the voices of the four mothers (with the exception of the late Suyuan Woo, whose story is told by Jing-mei), each with a memorable, even shocking, tale of life in China. The next two sections contain stories by the four daughters: recollections of mother-dominated childhoods under the rubric "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates'' (a Chinese book spelling out the various hazards - 26 of them - awaiting hapless infants) and accounts of adult life under the heading "American Translation.'' In the fourth section, "Queen Mother of the Western Skies,'' the mothers speak again, this time about their lives in America and their daughters, and in the closing story, Jing-mei goes to China to meet her half sisters.

Each story is a gem, complete in itself. Yet each is further enhanced by its relationship (direct or indirect) with the others. The range is remarkable: The author deftly captures the neurotic comedy of contemporary life styles and the scarring tragedies of the hidden Chinese past.

It's amazing how much plot, character, drama, and atmosphere are crammed into these short (15-page) narratives: the comic warfare of mothers competing over whose daughter is the most talented; the bitter experiences of a Chinese concubine; the ingenuity of a Chinese girl faced with the fait accompli of an arranged marriage; the courage of a mother struggling to cope with the loss of a child. By the time we are through, we - and Jing-mei - fully appreciate the determination and pathos of the mothers' efforts to mold their daughters' characters, as well as the daughters' inevitable reactions.

As a testament of Chinese-American life, "The Joy Luck Club'' may well be compared to Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Men'' and "The Woman Warrior.'' Like them, it makes exceptionally good use of short stories to present the many strands of an intricate cultural tapestry. Tan's style is warmer and less austere than Kingston's, and her subject matter offers a more direct emotional appeal to the reader.

In Tan's hands, these linked stories - diverse as they are - fit almost magically into a powerfully coherent novel, whose winning combination of ingredients - immigrant experience, mother-daughter ties, Pacific Rim culture - make it a book with the ``good luck'' to be in the right place at the right time. This first novel is a featured alternate of two major book clubs and is being serialized in four magazines. It also happens to be a novel that deserves its fortune.

Merle Rubin regularly reviewed fiction for the Monitor.

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