Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Joy Luck Club

From the time it came out, everyone has been telling me that The Joy Luck Club is a great book. Janet has used the book for teaching and often refers to stories from it. In her nonfiction memoir, The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan impressed me very much with her ability to see and articulate the truth of things. Finally, the idea of connections between mothers and daughter, "like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way" appealed to me. So, I brought it along with me to Brazil, in the form of a conveniently compact paperback, and read it on planes. To be honest, I was disappointed. The connections between the mothers and their daughters were not as compelling as I had expected, and I kept looking back to see who went with whom. My guess is that most of the middle of the book was written as short stories, with the names changed, and a few bits added, later, in order to make them fit together. However, the last quarter of the book is the best, and stories are brought together with compelling force.

There is also the way men are depicted in this book. There are no love stories here; few of the men even know anything about their wives. The Chinese husbands of the mothers in China are all self-absorbed and distant, philandering or asexual. The American husbands are benign at best. An exception may be Waverly Jong's husband Rich, but we don't really get to know him, and the only time that any father or husband plays a truly meaningful role comes in the last chapter, when Canning Woo relays his wife's story to their daughter.

Lest I be misunderstood, The Joy Luck Club is a great book, but it is not so good as I had hoped, and not as good as The Bonesetter's Daughter, which Janet and I listened to on tape during one of our many trips from Miami to Washington. I can even enlist support from the author herself, who makes a case for The Kitchen God's Wife in her memoirs ("regardless of what others may think, [The Kitchen God's Wife] is my favorite" – The Opposite of Fate, pg. 333). Perhaps that is the book I should have read.


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