August 29, 2014

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness. / And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.
-from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
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I have always heard of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club but I had never read it or even known what it was about, which is why I put it on my TBR Pile List Challenge. The Joy Luck Club is ultimately a story about the relationships of mothers and daughters, especially in Chinese culture and relating to the immigrant experience. The novel examines the lives of four women who emigrated from China and compares their life experiences to their respective first-generation Chinese-American daughters. The women are tied together through The Joy Luck Club where the four spend time playing mahjong together and their friendships are cultivated.

The structure of the novel is interesting and important being split into four parts and told by seven different narrators. The first component is narrated by each of the three immigrant mothers (one of the four having died before the novel begins); these chapters give the reader an understanding of what 1920s China was like for each woman individually. The second section is told from the perspective of each of the four daughters giving the reader their varied perspectives of growing up in America as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother. The third section is also told by the daughters and fleshes out each girl's development into adulthood and how they have grown to relate (or not be able to relate) to their respective mothers. Finally, in the fourth section the mothers bring their narratives full circle and the reader begins to emotionally understand the cultural behavior of the mothers toward their daughters.

At first the structure of the novel was the part I liked least about this book. While symmetrically it sounds great, it was really difficult to follow the stories when they were broken up amongst each other. I could barely follow whose mother belonged to whom (fortunately there is a list at the beginning of the book) and had to keep notes as I read. I really thought I might have preferred if each mother-daughter pair was its own section of the four-part series instead of mixing up all the stories. It was difficult for me to really get into this book because of that. But after reading some reviews about the book from others, I came to understand that the book is actually set up similar to a mahjong game. I am not familiar with mahjong so I was not able to distinguish this, but I don't doubt that the pieces of the story were strategically placed to reflect something so symbolic of the relationships in the book and the culture. Perhaps if you are familiar with mahjong you will be further impressed by this story's structure.

Even though the story was more difficult to follow than I would have liked, the actual content is stunning. The comparisons Tan draws between the cultures and the power of the background each stoic Chinese mother undergoes is not only fascinating but beautifully written. There are some lines that made me have to stop and appreciate them rather than continue reading. I loved the explication of the cultural disconnect between the immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters and the lessons each mother tries to instill in her daughter but is lost in translation. I felt Tan really captivated how isolating it is for immigrants, even amongst their own families, along with how much American-born citizens take so much for granted.

While this wasn't necessarily an "easy" book to read, it was very fulfilling and I think any mother or daughter should read it, whether their mother is an immigrant or not. I think if you don't get along with your mother it might help you see her in a new light, and if you do get along with your mother it will only magnify your love to read the stories of The Joy Luck Club.

Bottom Line: A must read for any mother and/or daughter. It's not an "easy" book to read and I recommend keeping notes of the characters to simplify the abundance of character information for four sets of women. But in the end it's very fulfilling and I think it would also make a great installment for any book club! 4/5 Stars.

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