Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Here it is, in the twilight of the year, and not only am I getting destroyed by Carlton, I am getting passed by Brent, and it looks as if fifty is a near impossibility. Even the books I read I pretty much read for work--case in point, this novel, The Joy Luck Club, which I am about to read with my tenth graders (and so had to quickly read myself).

I had gotten the impression somewhere that Amy Tan was a lightweight, and that The Joy Luck Club was a pretty Hallmarkish simp-fest about mothers and daughters rediscovering their relationship. I am please to report that while it does fall firmly in the stylistic arena of most pop-fiction, Tan's dissection of how families interact across cultural boundaries is pretty compelling.

The Joy Luck Club is split into 16 stories, many originally considered as separate stories not meant to tell a single narrative. There are four mothers who escaped China during the Sino-Japanese War of the 1940's and their four daughters who grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown. The one is exception is Jing-Mei Woo, who, just as she has replaced her mother in the womens' mah jongg circle--the titular club--tells four stories, assuming her mother's pair.

In Chinese, "joy luck" is one word, and its English equivalent not quite up to the task of translating it completely. In the same way, Tan explores the way that certain Chinese concepts fail to make the translation in the lives of their daughters, and the frustration of both sides who essentially live in separate cultures. To one of the daughters, it may seem that feng shui is an outmoded concept with no practical meaning, but she fails to see that the way her hastily constructed table falls apart is indicative of the weakness and fragility of her household and her marriage.

I am having trouble remembering specific episodes; for the most part, these characters are interchangeable. They are all, you get the impression, Amy Tan an Amy Tan's mother, and so there is very little cross-pollination between the stories. For the most part, each story tells about one pair of mothers and daughters, and the other characters appear only incidentally. As a result, The Joy Luck Club cannot cohere an struggles as a narrative. But the stories themselves are carefully contained and affective; I hope that this makes it easier to read for my kids.

3 comments:

Carlton said...

You can take some of your books from last year and add them to this year's count.
I read this the year before 50 Books started. For some reason, that section about the table collapsing has really stuck with me.

Nihil Novum said...

I might beat you in books, Chris, but I think you're going to be ahead in reviews.

Christopher said...

Get to work, lazy ass.