Hello, everyone! Amidst all the political chaos, trade wars, and the anti-China rhetoric our president spews on the daily, it’s good to take a break and remind ourselves that we’re all Americans, we all came from somewhere, and we all just want to live our lives in peace. There’s no better reminder than Amy Tan’s modern classic The Joy Luck Club, a novel that bridges the gap between the immigrant experience and the American dream. Even though Tan’s book was written almost 3 decades ago (the 30 year anniversary is next year), The Joy Luck Club’s themes are essential reading for today’s Americans. Tan’s novel emphasizes a need for compassion, mutual respect, and the empathy to understand unfamiliar cultures, and while these lessons may seem like basic elements of humanity, they are sorely lacking in America’s political discourse. Additionally, the American tendency to mold others in our own image finds its rebuttal, as Tan’s characters realize that they can wear an American face without losing their Chinese one.
Synopsis: When the founder of the Joy Luck Club, Suyuan Woo, dies of an aneurysm, the other three members of the club, An-mei Hsu, Ying-Ying St. Clair, and Lindo Jong, invite her daughter Jing-mei to take her place. Once there, she learns that her mother had two living daughters in China whom she abandoned during the Japanese invasion of Kweilin. The three women implore Jing-mei to visit China and meet her sisters. Told through anecdotes, the book details the lives of An-mei, Ying-ying, and Lindo in China before their immigration and their respective daughter’s lives as Chinese-Americans.
My take: Having read two of Tan’s other books, The Kitchen God’s Wife (which I loved) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (which I liked), I wasn’t surprised by the focus on Chinese immigrant women and their Chinese-American daughters. But instead of focusing on one mother-daughter pair, Tan expands to four mothers and four daughters, creating interweaving anecdotes that span class, age, and countries. I found the structure to be confusing, as there’s nothing linking the stories together besides the character’s relationships to one another, and I also found it difficult to tell the difference between the mothers, as they all suffered from the same afflictions of powerlessness and circumstance. That said, I still admire the masterful way that Tan kept a handle on the 16 (!!) different anecdotes she had in her novel. She essentially told the life stories of 8 different women in a book less than 300 pages and never lost track of who they were or what they were trying to say.
Like Russian nesting dolls, the individual stories function as self-contained works, but also connect with the overarching stories of other characters, and finally the main “plot” of the novel, Jing-mei’s journey to meet with her sisters. This journey opens and closes the novel, giving the sprawling nature of the book a neatly wrapped package. I can not overstate the mastery of Tan’s grasp on a work with this many moving pieces. That fact that she managed to give them all satisfying endings is enough to cement her proficiency, but her effortless prose and essential themes of humanity prove why she’s one of the best American writers of the century.
As Americans, we often think of our country’s struggles with immigration as one-sided. We see the influx of immigrants, but not where they came from, we judge them for imperfect English, but don’t try to learn their languages, and we look down on their cultures without taking a moment to realize that their cultures, experiences, and life stories are as real and important as our own. Amy Tan’s novels have always featured characters thrust in the in-between, the American-born children of first-generation Chinese immigrants who have to conform to American and Chinese ways of living. For 3rd or 4th generation Americans, it might be difficult to understand the difficulty of being half of two things while trying to be wholly both.
In The Joy Luck Club, Tan shows the two sides of the issue: the children who would rather choose their new culture than their birth one, and their mothers who feel the pain of losing their heritage to the new generation. Their anecdotes aren’t just stories told to their daughters, they’re a last ditch effort to be remembered. When you think of it like that, the cruelty of American political discourse is apparent. Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club in 1989. 30 years later, we’re still dismissing and dehumanizing people based on what we don’t understand. Everyone wants to tell their story. Everyone wants to be remembered. The Joy Luck Club distills this need into a gem of a novel, a classic that resonates 30 years after its publication, and will continue to resonate for decades to come.