I was first exposed to Amy Tan when I was a child and the movie “The Joy Luck Club” made its repeated runs on HBO. I found it fascinating from a cinematic point of view, and loved it so much to the point I asked for the DVD some Christmas. But even though I knew it was based off a book, I never got around to reading it until I needed to write a book report in high school and it was on the list of “acceptable materials”. I’ve since bought my own copy and re-read it every couple of years.
“The Joy Luck Club” is both Amy Tan’s debut work and her best. In it are seven narrators depicting the lives of eight people (one of the older women, Suyuan, is deceased at the time of the overarching story and her daughter June tells her story instead.) Four of them, Suyuan, An-Mei, Ying Ying, and Lindo, are immigrants from various parts of China, and the other four, June, Rose, Lena, and Waverly, (respectively) are their American born and raised daughters. Each tells their own story in first person (aside from Suyuan who is deceased) in a total of two chapters each across four parts.
While it’s not the longest read, it’s a heavy one. The “mothers” (collectively called so in this review) have each been through their own personal hells both in China and America, with varying triumphs mixed in (such as out-witting bad families, enduring abandonment and physical/emotional abuse, losing family members, for vague examples). Throughout their horrors, struggles, and eventual triumphs in a land not kind to the status of women and young girls, the mothers all agree that their daughters will have an easier life in America. But what they discover is that their daughters have become more American than Chinese, and they fear that they won’t be able to convey their “hopes and dreams” to the daughters who have different ideas and sensibilities from their own.
Meanwhile, the daughters all tend to agree that their “overbearing” Chinese mothers have each made their lives/childhoods hell in some way shape or form, either from pushing them too hard, to seemingly not understanding what they want, to feeling that they constantly put them down. From the reader’s perspective we’re able to see things from both sides, but of course, the characters cannot.
Amy Tan paints a beautiful picture of the lives these women live, and the relationships between them. From the rivalry between Lindo and Suyuan that extends to their daughters Waverly and June, from the “ghosts” of Ying Ying and her daughter Lena, and to the leaps of faith between An-Mei and Rose, it’s easy and clear to see why Amy Tan is lauded for her depictions of mother-daughter relationships. And as someone who has a loving and strong relationship with her own mother who has had her own hardships in the past, it’s near impossible to read any of these relationships without self-reflection.
Of course, there are differences between the book and the movie, but they are mostly negligible. The movie largely cuts out Ying Ying’s first chapter during her childhood and jumps right into the dirty business of young adulthood; the movie conveniently leaves out An-Mei’s half-dozen other children and what happens with them. But for the most part it’s true to the source and can be enjoyed on its own with a great cast backing great characters. (And the clothes are so hilariously 80s.)
I tend to use TJLC as a barometer for people I know – if you’ve read it and felt absolutely -nothing-, then odds are we are not going to get along. It’s an amazing book that’s going to be one of my personal classics probably for the rest of my life, and I can only aspire to write as honestly as Amy Tan does.