Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club

‘[…] it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to those closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation’.

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club has been sitting on my shelf unread for many years. She is a writer I have known of but never really known much about. Someone who has been around writing for a long time, but a new discovery for me.

The Joy Luck Club follows the lives of four daughters and their respective mothers as they traverse life in America. Coming from two markedly different perspectives – the mothers have come to America for varying reasons to settle down and start families, their daughters are first generation Chinese Americans – Tan subtly draws out the unique experiences of immigrant life in the US from two different generations and the tensions this can create between the mothers and daughters.

‘My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mahjong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts’.

Opening with Jing-Mei “June” Woo whose mother, Suyuan Woo, has recently passed away, we are immediately confronted with the disconnect between the older and younger generation. Invited to replace her mother in the ‘Joy Luck Club’ – where these Chinese mothers gather once a month to play mahjong, gossip and eat delicious feasts – Jing-Mei is astounded to learn about the details of her mother’s past, before she made the difficult decision to move to the US. In learning that her mother had actively been searching for the two daughters she left behind in China in the years preceding her death, Jing-Mei realises that she never really knew her mother, being quick to always dismiss her mother’s experiences and advice as not relevant to her own life. It is with this realisation that Tan draws us into similar narratives between the other mothers and their grown-up, American-born daughters.

Through some research around the book I found out that the structure of the novel is very cleverly constructed around the game of mahjong. There are four parts to the novel, with each part divided into four sections, making a total of sixteen chapters. Each section alternates between the mothers’ and the daughters’ stories, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character (minus Jing-Mei’s mother).

Through each chapter we are given the life stories of each character as well as their current situations. What Tan did beautifully was blend the past and present together seamlessly. There are moments where certain actions and decisions seem so believable based on what we have already been told from their histories. For example, Rose’s frustrating habit to never stand up for herself and make decisions – how she just kind of fell into the life she currently leads – may have been the result of a traumatic childhood experience when she was meant to be in charge of looking after her younger brother. Or Lena’s submission to her husband, who insists on splitting all costs equally even though he earns a much bigger salary than she does, may stem from interpreting her mother’s quietness and guardedness when she was younger as meekness. Constantly being the interpreter between her mother and American father and witnessing the miscommunication between the two, she instead decides to settle for a hassle-free, non-confrontational life.

However, one thing I did find with The Joy Luck Club was how similar each character felt, particularly between the daughters. I had trouble keeping track of some of the stories as the tone and storyline seemed almost identical to one another. I was a lot more interested in learning about the histories of the mothers and why they either decided or had no choice but to leave their home country for another, completely alien culture. Perhaps I would have enjoyed Amy Tan’s book more if she had just stuck to one mother-daughter relationship and observed it in more depth. Having said that, I found the ending so touching and emotional that I finished the book in tears.

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