Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts.
With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
WARNING: This post will likely contain spoilers.
Representation: Chinese & Chinese-American MCs
Content warnings: (click to show)
loss of loved ones (parent, infant, sibling), terminally ill grandparent, child abuse & neglect & abandonment, racism, societal misogyny, homophobia, ableist language (r-word), self-mutilation, on-page almost-drowning, eating disorder, mention of abortion, mention of rape, suicide by poison
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Thoughts Before Reading
- Since I’m trying to knock some of the oldest titles off my TBR, it just makes sense to read The Great Chinese-American Classic at some point.
- (Also, this is my 51st YARC title, which means I’ve officially earned the Bengali tiger badge!)
- Normally I try not to read the synopsis or reviews before starting; this one is well-known enough that it would’ve been hard to avoid hearing about the controversy over it, especially with the relatively recent increase in Asian-American media representation — but I haven’t looked into the specifics and I’m doing my best to reserve judgment until I read it myself.
- I will admit, though, between the aforementioned controversy and my not-so-great reading experience with Tan’s memoir Where the Past Begins, I don’t have very high hopes.
- Maybe I should just get started before I talk myself out of this.
Thoughts While Reading
- Well, at least the Chinese immigrants don’t speak the contrived broken English that I’ve seen in so many books … unless they do, and this dialogue is intended to have been spoken in their native Chinese but translated for the reader? I guess we’ll see.
- I’m so glad standardized pinyin has become more popular for Chinese-to-English transliteration, because even though I grew up speaking Chinese I’m not 100% sure I’m interpreting these phrases correctly.
- “Stories within the story” is a narrative technique that sometimes works really well and sometimes just throws me off the whole time it’s happening. This seems more like the latter case because I wasn’t prepared for the meta-narrative to be the bulk of the novel, but hopefully I’ll adjust soon.
We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck.
- Mmmmm, this scene reminds me that I have not had wontons in forever and I miss them. Wonder if there’s a good [read: authentic] Chinese place nearby that delivers takeout?
- It’s interesting that all four of these mother-daughter relationships seem to have gotten worse and worse (or, at the very least, more distant) over the years — the exact opposite of what I’ve experienced with my own parents.
My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more.
- I can relate to the proxy competition between Asian moms, though; my mom was great about not asking why I couldn’t be more like some of my classmates, but their moms always seemed to know my business in as much detail as my own mom.
- Wait, did she just express surprise that her half-sisters, born and raised in China, are “smart enough” to read and write Chinese?
- Are these folk tales actually traditional Chinese folk tales, or are they made up? I’ve never heard them, but of course I don’t know all the Asian folk tales ever told.
- Some of these passages are profoundly quotable, and by that I mean every other sentence bears dissecting. Terrific for an English literature class, not so great for light reading.
- Oh country superstition, so complex and powerful. Everything is an omen.
Haven’t I taught you — that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen.
- The gender roles are strong with this one … I know it’s historical fiction, and part of Chinese culture besides, but it still annoys me.
- Huh, I was so sure that I hadn’t read any part of this book before, but I distinctly remember “Rules of the Game” from a middle school anthology textbook. (I don’t think we actually discussed it in class, but I read all the stories in that textbook just for fun.)
“Some boy in my class said Chinese people do Chinese torture.” […]
“Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.”
- Oh hey it’s a white male savior character in a WMAF relationship. Funfunfun.
- To be quite honest I don’t really understand these more metaphorical / figurative passages; the writing is indubitably powerful, but I just don’t know what point is being made.
- It’s a weird thing because I know this Chinese-American experience will be relatable for some people (not including me), but at the same time it’s more than a little stereotypical and that bothers me.
- Piano recitals. I take back what I said about not relating to this experience; I hated piano recitals, though I did like playing and my piano teachers were mostly too nice about the fact that I never practiced at home.
- Geez, I’m all for equality in relationships but this is so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s actually an unhealthy dynamic even before you consider the imbalance of power in their work lives.
- Honestly I can’t quite keep straight who’s who, their stories all kind of blend together in my mind. I think I like Waverly best, but it’s possible that I just remember her most distinctly because she’s the former chess prodigy.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s explicitly stated in the law, but you can’t ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up. You could be charged as an accessory to your own murder.”
- Uh-oh, meeting the parents is bad enough without polar opposite cultural norms getting in the way. (Though my sympathy for this guy went down the drain when he criticized her mom’s English afterward; in what world is that a good idea.)
- Waverly. Why would you marry a guy who constantly spews ignorant racist crap?
- Actually, I like the daughters. Even though they can’t seem to wrap their minds around what their mothers went through or what they’re trying to tell them, they have so much strength of character despite feeling torn between two cultures.
- I love seafood, yet scenes like this one with the crabs make me seriously reconsider veganism. Weird how seeing them live in the tank and on cooking shows hasn’t affected me as much as a few sentences on this page.
- It probably says something about me that my first thought upon reading about this magnificent clock was a memory of listening to one with dancing dolls that “It’s A Small World” at a shopping mall when I was little, followed by the one from The Night Circus. I don’t know what it says about me, but there it is anyway.
- Damn, this sordid family history would make a great TV drama. Which reminds me, there’s a movie adaptation of this book, right? I should watch that at some point.
- Can we stop demonizing psychiatrists and therapy? Mental health stigma is bad enough as it is. (Yes, I know this book was published ages ago, but people still read it today, and it’s not an attitude that’s seen widespread change.)
I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang away from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore.
- I feel like tigers and dragons are the animals most strongly associated with Chinese culture (through a Western lens) which makes me sad because that makes it harder to appreciated a character who was born in the year of the Tiger just as I was.
- And again, I’m sure this moment is profound but I actually don’t know what’s happening on the plot level.
- At least I can 200% get behind making fun of fortune cookies. They’re not actually Chinese, and they’re ridiculous.
- Oh right, there’s supposedly an overarching plot connecting all the family tragedies and injustices, and now it’s returned to center stage to bring it all to a close. I feel like I should’ve been more invested in this reunion, and I wish I was.
- I don’t understand this closing passage, which means by definition I can’t consider it a strong ending, which is incredibly disappointing.
Thoughts After Reading
- Okay, I definitely understand the criticisms of Orientalism and stereotyping. Even though there are technically seven main characters / narrators, I felt like there were really only two different stories being told: the Chinese immigrant narrative and the first-generation ABC (American Born Chinese) narrative.
- That said, I don’t regret the time I spent getting through this book — primarily because it’s such an important Asian-American cultural touchstone. It’s not widely referenced and I don’t think many other books have been based on it, but it’s still part of our history, and I’m grateful for its existence.
Have you read The Joy Luck Club, or been considering it? Do you have any recommendations for other family / generational novels?