The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

 

As I read The Joy Luck Club, I was reminded of what’s great about books, especially fiction. Here I am, a middle-aged white man living in 2019 America, suddenly immersed in the lives of Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters, spanning most of the 20th century. It was a bit like snooping in a stranger’s medicine cabinet: Much of what you see there is fascinating; some of it is unfathomable.

Tan is very good at world-building. Open her book to any page and you are immediately absorbed by whatever she’s writing about. Vivid images and memorable metaphors abound. That’s the good news.

Yet if I’m honest … there are eight main characters in the story – four mothers and four daughters – and I often found them indistinguishable. The mothers all suffer hardships and learn valuable life lessons, which they attempt to pass on to their girls. The daughters are all more optimistic but also more foolish. At times I felt I was reading the same story four times over, just with different character names.

But Joy Luck seems relevant to me, some 30 years after its publication, in part because there is so much talk about China today, and it illustrates the gap between the Chinese way of seeing the world, and the American way. The Chinese – at least traditionally – seem to be all about fate and omens and what the West might consider superstition. They see America as a place of much opportunity, but too little wisdom and too much worship at the altar of money.

 

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