Book Reviews

Saturday Summary: The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club is the first book by Amy Tan I’ve read and although I initially had mixed feelings about it, I found it funny, touching and beautiful. This was a reading experience outside of what I usually read because I rarely read contemporary novels, especially ones about other cultures different from my own. I encountered a lot of intriguing cultural differences but also a lot of universal truths that transcend culture, ethnicity and age.

The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club is about four Chinese women who go through heartbreaking  experiences while leaving China and immigrating to the United States. Together, they start a club in 1949 and call themselves the Joy Luck Club. They eat, play mahjong and talk, united by their stories of loss and hope. These women try to pass on their Chinese customs, traditions and ancestral inheritance to their American-born daughters but the translations are often lost in the cultural and linguistic barriers between the two generations. The Joy Luck Club at its heart is about the relationship between mother and daughter, and the family stories that shape them.

Initially, I felt the story started out slow but most stories do. As I read more and the mothers started to reveal their pasts, I became more interested. It’s a story about immigration and memory, so the mothers often reference their lives in China and compare it to their lives in America.

Amy Tan shows the ways in which immigration shapes families and the cultural disconnect that can happen when children grow up from a different cultural framework. The mothers often say that their daughters are more American than Chinese. As each daughter learns more about her mother and her story though, they start to sympathize and understand their mother’s way of thinking better. As I read The Joy Luck Club, I realized that everyone can have a disconnect with their parent, that children will often be referencing a different cultural understanding that is different from their parent’s understanding, especially when that generational gap is shaped by a different cultural era.

My own parents are baby boomers, born in the 1950s, a time vastly different from the 1990s when I was born. Often, I find that I have a way of thinking that’s quite liberal compared to the more conservative and traditional thinking of my parents, and sometimes, our meanings can be lost and misunderstood in that cultural contrast. And I know the the same thing happened in the 1960s with people and their parents, who were born in earlier, more conservative eras.

The same often happens with mothers and daughters. I loved this aspect of Amy Tan’s story because I could relate to the push and pull that happens between parent and child. The child wants to go their own way and do things their way while the parent only wants what’s best for their child and has ideas about how the child should do things. Sometimes parents are right, they know more. Sometimes parents are wrong and the child has to learn on their own, make their own mistakes, live their own life. Amy Tan illustrated this perfectly–you could often feel the frustration of the daughters, how they felt pressured to win their parents’ approval but rebel at the same time, as if to challenge their mothers and prove to themselves that they could do things on their own terms. You could also feel the mothers’ despair and sadness, that they felt like their daughters didn’t respect them or truly understand them.

Despite the many similarities I saw between my own experience and those of the characters, I saw a lot of differences as well. I don’t come from a Chinese background but I learned how important cultural and ancestral inheritance is in Chinese culture, how deeply Chinese spirituality and symbolism is tied into Chinese thinking and understanding of the world, and the significance of Chinese customs and traditions. I really did discover a lot about Chinese culture that I never knew before and am particularly interested in the Chinese zodiac, and how it really influences people’s understanding of their personalities in relation to the world.

I can see how Amy Tan’s cultural background influences her writing style. It’s so beautifully and effortlessly written, and because of her cultural background her writing style is very distinct from what I’m used to reading. This is why diversity in literature is so important, it takes us out of our comfort zone and opens our eyes. I loved Amy Tan’s use of humour, her characters, and the way she switches between past and present so skillfully. I was unsure of the book at first but by the end, I was touched. This is one of the few books that has brought me to tears. I’ll definitely be reading more Amy Tan.

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