The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan.
(Disclosure: I'm an Amazon Associate, all opinions are my own, blah blah blah.)
Maybe it was the fact that a number of people had recommended this novel so highly to me, and I built it up too much in my mind beforehand. Maybe it just came too close on the heels of Hannah Coulter, which I really loved. Whatever the reason, I just didn't enjoy this book.
Tan is, undeniably, an excellent writer and compelling storyteller. It wasn't the writing, but rather the story itself (and the worldview behind the story) that didn't sit well with me.
In a nutshell, the plot centers around four Chinese women and their four daughters. The mothers, recent immigrants to San Francisco in 1949, form a club, "Joy Luck," where they eat elaborate meals, play mahjong, and talk in order to temporarily forget about the difficulties they have left behind. When one mother dies, the father asks his now-grown daughter to fill her place in the club, where she listens to her mother's friends' stories. The women share about their lives and their attempts to preserve the cultural and emotional connections with their American-born daughters, who are dealing with problems of their own.
I expected the book to be more about the club, but Tan doesn't really talk much about it other than in the introduction. Each chapter is simply each woman's story, which occasionally intersects with the others' stories.
All I could think about while reading this novel were the articles I had read about the controversial book that came out last year, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. The mothers in this story could easily be labeled as "Tiger Mothers." They set extremely high expectations on their children and are very harsh (borderline abusive) towards them when they fail to live up to those expectations. Children in this worldview seem to exist simply for the bragging rights and provision in old age for the parents, and if they prove to be a disappointment, they're more or less expendable. There are a few hints of affection here or there between the mothers and children, but overall, I found the mother-daughter relationships portrayed in this book to be dysfunctional, co-dependent, and unsettling.
While there are a few references to missionaries and a Baptist Church, in this book, Christianity seems to be either simply something to be used to get "stuff" (the poor immigrant families receive donations and gifts from the church, etc.), or a talisman that has been tried and found wanting (a mother uses a Bible to prop up a lopsided table after it failed to magically save her child from dying). The worldview behind the women's beliefs is very much based on Eastern religions - Buddhism, Taoism, etc., which manifest themselves in the many superstitions and signs that dictate people's decisions and futures. The light of the gospel doesn't shine anywhere, and overall, it's a pretty dark book.
Although it was interesting to read a novel written from a very foreign perspective and worldview to my own, and although Tan is an excellent writer, those facts just didn't redeem this story enough for me to want to revisit it in the future or recommend it to anyone else. I was disappointed.
Have you read it? What did you think?