The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989, 288 pages

The amazing first edition cover

The Joy Luck Club is a beautiful portrait of four Chinese women and each of their American-born daughters. The four mothers make up the Joy Luck Club, a regular meeting where they eat special foods, tell stories, and play mahjong. The book is comprised of sixteen short, intersecting stories, in four parts. Tan apparently chose this structure to reflect a mahjong game – which I believe is an indication of her ability to build around a theme.

And the themes of this book are easily recognized, as mothers and daughters ask such questions as: where did I come from? Which part of my heritage determines who I am? What is my story, and what can I learn by telling it? What can I learn from listening?

Storytelling as a familial necessity seems a part of all of Tan’s novels. Even as many of her characters ask questions after it’s too late, it’s often their search for answers that ends up shaping their identity.

The biggest challenge I found in reading Joy Luck was keeping track of who was who. Eight main characters is a lot, and I often had to flip back to the front page, where each mother-daughter pair was listed. Even though it seemed like an extra effort, it was interesting to see how carefully Tan used the mothers’ stories to inform the daughters’ observations about how they were raised. Each story was strong as a stand-alone. I have my favourites, but I can’t think of a single vignette that was anything short of awesome.

From director Wayne Wang, 1993

From director Wayne Wang, 1993

Tan’s ability to put complex human problems in such plain (and often stark) language is amazing to read. On the other hand, when she aims to describe something, it’s done in stunning detail. This author’s real talent is always finding the right balance.

If you haven’t read any of Amy Tan’s works, and if you’re interested in anything relating to China, immigrant families, or the female relationships within them, I highly recommend you start with this book. In 1993, The Joy Luck Club was made into a film, which is also really good. But for the simple pleasure of great storytelling, you should do yourself a favour and read it first.

Let me know what you think!

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