No matter what you write, your mother will always believe it's about her. So said author Ann Beattie a few years ago at a book talk in Connecticut. You could write about a family of dogs living on Mars, Beattie went on, and your mother will be convinced that she is the mother dog. (And who are we kidding, she probably is.)
Amy Tan is a writer who has fully embraced this concept. Her first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," plumbed the gulf between American daughters and their Chinese mothers.
Now, after the death of her own mother, Tan has returned to these themes with a renewed poignancy and lyricism in "The Bonesetter's Daughter."
In recent magazine interviews and the novel's foreword, she makes it clear how much she has drawn from her own life. Like her heroine, Ruth, Tan experienced yearly bouts of psychosomatic laryngitis - unable to speak for days at a time. And like Ruth, Tan didn't learn her mother's real name until just before she died.
Ruth is a ghost-writer - a job she's been training for since she started editing her mother's English as a girl. "Ruth had always been forced to serve as Luling's mouthpiece," the narrator writes. "By the time she was ten, Ruth was the English-speaking 'Mrs. Luling Young' on the telephone, the one who made appointments for the doctor, who wrote letters to the bank."
As in her previous books, Tan captures the humiliated embarrassment of the assimilated child (as well as a parent's terror that her American girl is rejecting her home culture, and by extension, herself). "Her mother couldn't even say Ruth's name right. It used to mortify Ruth when she shouted for her up and down the block. 'Lootie! Lootie!' Why had her mother chosen a name with sounds she couldn't pronounce?"
But the ghost-writing turns out to be more than a figure of speech: In a ritual she has dreaded since she was a child, Luling has used Ruth as a medium, making her scribble in sand messages from a nursemaid, the bonesetter's daughter of the title, who killed herself in China when her mother was a girl.
Tan powerfully evokes the pain mothers and daughters cause one another, seemingly effortlessly - but redemption is always lurking a chapter away.
The novel begins with the pages Luling has frantically written to capture her memories before Alzheimer's strips them away. Ruth, not fluent in Mandarin, gave up trying to read them years before, but once Luling's disease is diagnosed, they provide a way for her to reunite with her mother.
"[The doctor] said the disease had probably started 'years ago'.... Maybe there was a reason her mother had been so difficult when Ruth was growing up, why she had talked about curses and ghosts and threats to kill herself."
Chinese superstitions have figured prominently in Tan's previous books, but they've either been used by a character for her own ends or to evoke the culture. "The Bonesetter's Daughter" shifts all the way into magical realism in one section, with not entirely believable results.
Also, Tan's generally fine writing occasionally veers into the overwrought: "She sensed her mother's life was at stake and the answer was in her hands, had been there all along."
Far more effective are Luling's experiences before and after the Japanese invasion of China and the sections where Ruth tries to care for her mother. Here again, Tan has drawn from experience, sharply detailing a child's fear in the face of a parent's growing helplessness.
For Luling and Ruth, Alzheimer's acts like a "truth serum," allowing a lifetime of lies to fall away. In fact, Luling's narrative to her daughter begins: "These are the things I know are true."
Finding emotional healing in the face of disease has launched a thousand Movies of the Week, but in the hands of a writer as generous as Tan, it's a subject that still resonates as an antidote to grief.
Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society