By Clover Carroll
The title of this year’s Big Read selection suggests a light-hearted, quick read filled with happiness and laughter. Not quite. During the reading, we discover that the title is in fact ironic—a defiant assertion of joy and hope in the face of tragedy, fear, and loss. Like life itself, this complex and realistic novel—which was discussed March 4 at the Crozet Library Book Club—blends joy with sorrow to create a multi-faceted exploration of themes such as immigrant alienation and assimilation, the psychological tension between mothers and daughters, and resilient women triumphing over adversity. The 1989 bestseller is being celebrated throughout March at all branches of JMRL, including a showing of the 1993 film at the Gordon Avenue library on March 11.
Suyuan Woo, the courageous central figure of the book, invents the original Joy Luck Club with four friends in Kweilin, China in the late 1930s as a temporary escape from the fear and despair surrounding the Japanese invasion. With bombs raining on the city, food in short supply, and frightened residents cowering at home not knowing which neighborhood will be attacked next, these women pool their meager resources to gather and play mah jong, an ancient Chinese tile game. Each betting their small allowance on the game, “we weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. 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.” Eventually, Suyuan must flee Kweilin with her twin baby girls in search of her Nationalist Party army officer husband. In the chaos of that exodus, she is forced to abandon the babies on the road—only to arrive in Chungking and find that her husband is dead.
In 1949, Suyuan leaves her war-torn homeland for San Francisco where, presuming her children to be dead, she meets and marries a fellow immigrant and gives birth to Jing-Mei, among other children. As Suyuan meets other alienated Chinese women in America—women who “had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English”—she forms a new incarnation of the Joy Luck Club in Chinatown.
As the book opens, 36-year-old Jing-Mei, also called June, has taken her recently deceased mother’s place at the mah-jong table, and we listen with her as the three “aunties” tell their emigration stories. We also learn that a letter has arrived from China, revealing that her twin half-sisters survived and want to meet her. The Joy Luck Club aunties, who have been investing their winnings in the stock market for many years to build a substantial nest-egg, offer to send Jing-Mei and her father to China to grant this wish and heal her mother’s long-standing guilt.
Over the course of the book, we also meet the daughters of these three old cherished friends, as they grow and struggle to succeed in the American culture. At once exotic and heart-rending, these 16 interwoven stories of Chinese immigrant families provide a rich portrait of old China colliding with American immigrant reality. Each woman narrates two of the stories, with only Jing-Mei Woo telling four because she must tell her mother’s stories for her. The mother stories begin and end the book, “cradling” the eight daughter stories at the center.
Deftly written vignettes combine realistic portraits of traditional, pre-revolutionary China with those of San Francisco’s famous Chinatown in the 1960s, with its immigrant opportunities and struggles to assimilate into American culture. This clash of eastern and western cultures, embodied in the petty arguments, misunderstandings, and mistrust between mothers and daughters, forms the central focus of the book.
One of the hardest conditions for Chinese immigrants from this era was that bad relations between the U.S. and China during the Cold War made it impossible for them to visit, or even communicate with, their homeland. Moreover, their American-born children could not visit China to connect with their lost heritage or meet their long-lost relatives. The typical strain we all experience as we strive to separate from our mothers and establish our own identities is intensified here by cultural alienation. In striving to be accepted as Americans, and with no real understanding of their mothers’ experiences, the daughters reject their ethnic identity and are embarrassed by their mothers’ embroidered silk dresses, fractured English, and Chinese superstitions. The mothers push their daughters to learn English and to excel at piano or chess, but are disappointed that the daughters can’t understand nor appreciate Chinese ways.
“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,” Jing-Mei recalls.
We as readers, on the other hand, come to appreciate the incredible strength and resilience that allowed these women to make it to America, driven by love and the hope of a better life for their daughters. One of the most moving stories, “Best Quality,” shows Suyuan giving her daughter a jade pendant to represent her “life’s importance.” Jing-Mei, finding it “too large, too green, too garish,” hides it away. Now, after her mother’s death, she wears it every day and comes to understand that it was in fact a symbol of her mother’s love and belief in her worth.
As the book progresses and the daughters grow to adulthood, this theme of the older generation’s passing their strength and resilience on to their daughters blends with the theme of women triumphing over victimization. The obedience and subservience required of women in old China is replaced by the freedom and independence to become “arty-teckys” and tax attorneys in the U.S. Eventually each daughter finds the inner strength to either leave an unsuccessful marriage or stand up to her husband for a fair division of property in the divorce. Jing-Mei, in fact, decides not to marry at all—all options that would not have been possible for their mothers.
Amy Tan drew on her own autobiography to create several of the stories in The Joy Luck Club. Originally named En-Mai, or Blessing of America, Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952 to immigrant parents. The book is dedicated to the memory of Tan’s mother Daisy—who boarded the last boat to leave Shanghai safely during the 1949 Communist takeover of China—and to her grandmother, who had been a concubine and later committed suicide. In one of the book’s most riveting stories, “Scar,” An-Mei Hsu is raised by her aunt and uncle after her widowed mother is disowned by the family for becoming the third concubine, or fourth wife, of a rich Chinese merchant. In a way, the book may be seen as Amy Tan’s own struggle to understand her heritage.
What critics have called an “intricately patterned novel” was, as the Big Read Reader’s Guide points out, originally “written as a collection of short stories, but the tales of memory, fate, and self-discovery interlock to create a colorful mural that reads like a novel.” In the tradition of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, multiple voices circle around a shared but ambiguous truth. The book is better approached as an album of snapshots than as a traditional novel with a linear plot. The stories blend together to create an impressionistic introduction to Chinese culture, history, and immigrant challenges.
The book does come full circle in the last chapter as Jing-Mei arrives in China to embrace her half-sisters and, symbolically, her own ethnic identity. In this uplifting scene, the meaning of Suyuan Woo’s name, “long-cherished wish,” is fulfilled and becomes the final words of the book. This is an ingenious, graceful book that teaches us to value and not be ashamed of our origins.