We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan
Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989
Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!
Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts.
With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.
Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.
I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.
Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.
This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.
Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.
I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.
I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.
We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.
Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.
Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.
Book Club Questions
- The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
- The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
- Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
- When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
- The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
- There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?
“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.
Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.