The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
reviewed by Dr. Carl Robertson
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
I have been reading and rereading The Joy Luck Club (and its Chinese translation Xifu hui) this summer for several reasons, but the most significant of them is genuine enjoyment. My previous reading of The Joy Luck Club was probably done for duty. As my purpose then was discovery of Chinese literature, especially in what I saw as its classical phase of intense poetic description, I missed the point. What I gained this summer from Amy Tan is frank telling about relationships. This is what matters to me now, how to relate our connections to others, how to make proper the manner of our association with other beings like ourselves. But this wouldn’t sell me on a story without the many hints of the love of words. She is honest to the point of eloquence. Other writers manage a kind of brash confessional with little grace, but Amy Tan has an honesty that is usually clear, direct and precise in diction.
The Joy Luck Club is a collection of sixteen stories that could stand on their own, telling the perspectives of eight women who comprise four pairs of mother-daughter relationships. The mothers are organized into a mahjong group named after a group that began in Guilin during the height of what we call World War II. The nature of the relationships can be seen as quite similar—mothers with strong personalities and the struggle their daughters go through to achieve a kind of independence. I think this is what I saw in my first reading however many years ago, and it is enough to dig deeply into the book and the lives behind it. But there is more to The Joy Luck Club.
What is more might be simply called a passage to healing, which may only be another way of calling it a struggle for independence, but what I see now is richer and more fulfilling. Instead of variations on a theme of conflict-denouement-resolution I see a deep involvement of a parent and her grown child, one that began long ago and will continue into the future, partly because the process to healing only begins in The Joy Luck Club, and at various levels. Jing-mei, for example, who forms a leading role as her mother passes away at the beginning of the story, takes us to a start to healing. We only have Jing-mei’s remembrances to tell the story of her mother, Suyuan, who founded the Joy Luck Club. In Jing-mei we have the movement of mother to daughter and daughter to mother as she represents both at once to each set of constituencies, as it were, but also to the reader. It is her comments that begin one great strand: “They [the mothers] are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation” (31). The mothers see the daughters in Jing-mei, but she also replaces her mother at the mahjong table, a role she is assigned in order to receive the commission to find her half-sisters in China. She completes this, telling her mother’s tale at the opening and closing of the novel, and in so doing acts as mother to recover the lost daughters.
The structure of mother’s tales, tales of daughters-as-children, of daughters-as-grownups, and finally of mothers whose tragedies can heal the daughters fears is a nice feature. As with large Chinese tales, the parts may seem a little fragmented to American readers, but that is a little more accepted now and it is all pulled to the center by the character of Jing-mei, who begins and ends, who stands in for others (including readers and the author, however we take her to be), and who indicates the patterns of recovery and healing.
Healing—incomplete, halting and tentative as it may be—is dramatically shown in the relationship between Waverly Jong and her mother Lindo Jong. For Waverly, life has been a contest, even
with her friend Jing-mei. A spirit of competition, of silent and determined “invisible wind” drives her into a penetrating imagination that wins numerous chess tournaments. But still her mother always wins between them. She cannot defeat her mother’s invisible strength. Finally, she finds her mother asleep and alone and weeps in front of her, feeling controlled by her mother’s silent critique of her fiancé. Her mother, waking, is shocked to find what her daughter thought. At once Waverly feels free. “And hiding in this place [her personal retreat from mother], behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side. Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in” (204).
Of course there are many other intriguing aspects of The Joy Luck Club: the joy of language, including the dynamic use of Chinese references in a naturalized English-language setting, the dreamscape vision of the characters and even the plot, the careful depiction of speech which is all the more remarkable for giving the pidginesque spoken forms of the mothers and their more polished interior dialogues while maintaining a consistency of voice, the beliefs and practices of the characters just as they are … and on. But much of that will have to await another telling.
I do believe The Joy Luck Club would improve by the exclusion of a few details. As this is a personal essay I may state that the two occasions when the name of deity is used as an epithet are disappointing to me. I do not see this so much a fault of Amy Tan’s as of a time and a society. I believe there is a core of moral truth that runs through much of The Joy Luck Club and Amy’s other writings which if it continued and followed through to its natural consequences would clarify and heal the other, but I recognize that mine is a small voice against a pattern of practices.
An expert sea captain once wrote of Richard Henry Dana’s book, Two Years Before the Mast, that the writing was so clear and precise that he, the captain, could tell when Dana’s captain was lost and waiting for the clouds to clear to get a good sighting of the sun—though Dana himself had no idea.
Although I can claim no expertise on anything relevant, Amy Tan writes so precisely that we can find truths from within our own selves in the characters she has so generously and freely offered to us.