Amy Tan

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"The Bonesetter's Daughter"

(Reviewed by Wenkai Tay JAN 25, 2004)

>Amy Tan's novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, is a bit of a disappointment. After the success of her first three novels, her fourth novel feels like more of the same.

The Bonesetter's Daughter tells the intertwined stories of a mother-daughter pair. Ruth Young, a middle-aged Chinese-American, has trouble relating to her elderly China-born mother, LuLing Young. LuLing is suffering from memory loss: a symptom of dementia, or Alzheimer's, perhaps.

But when LuLing tells Ruth the story of her past, Ruth finds the power to understand and forgive her mother. LuLing recalls her life in the village called Immortal Heart, brought up by her Precious Auntie, more than a nursemaid to her. Precious Auntie, the daughter of a famous bonesetter, found herself plagued by misfortune and ghosts from the past. LuLing fears the effect of such bad luck will filter down through many generations. This was why Ruth's mother burdened her with insecurities and paranoia all through her childhood.

Once again, Amy Tan plumbs her fascination with the supernatural, while capturing the idiosyncratic dynamics within a Chinese family. All the same, Tan affirms the role of the mother in preserving the continuity of tradition. "A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin."

But the mother-daughter relationship has been explored repeatedly in Amy Tan's previous novels. In fact, it was done with more flair in The Joy Luck Club, crafted in the form of a mahjong game.

The way the dialogue moves back and forth between two female narrators is yet another technique that Tan has employed before. Tan has done better in The Hundred Secret Senses, moving convincingly between two disjointed narratives, welding the world of humans and of ghosts into one in a macabre twist.

In comparison, there's little that's fresh and innovative about The Bonesetter's Daughter. Is Tan attempting to recreate her previous successes?

Still Amy Tan succeeds in capturing what it means to be Chinese in America. Few can write about the Asian-American experience with as much conviction or dynamism. Of course, she grapples with issues of authenticity: there are a number of factual lapses in her novels. But hers are works of American fiction, not Chinese fiction; they are her interpretations of reality filtered through her unique Asian-American experience. Her strong commitment to creating a credible Asian-American literary canon is admirable.

In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan reaffirms this commitment, telling the story of the prominent female figures in her life. "The heart of this story belongs to my grandmother, its voice to my mother," she writes.

One suspects, however, that Amy Tan is more successful with made-up plots like those in The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses. When she tells the true-life stories of her mother in The Kitchen God's Wife, and of her grandmother in The Bonesetter's Daughter, she fails.

It's commendable that Tan has decided to record and document the experiences of her family in The Bonesetter's Daughter, but her tale is too fictionalized to be authentic, too real to be interesting.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 288 reviews
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"The Hundred Secret Senses"

(Posted by Judi Clark FEB 10, 1998)

Olivia Yee's half-sister, Kwan, is coming from China to live with them. Six-year old Olivia imagines what this half-sister will be like and is, of course, disappointed. Kwan embarrasses Olivia from the time she arrives until far into adulthood. Kwan claims to have "yin eyes" and sees ghosts.  She tells Olivia stories of the yin people - a woman named Banner, a man named Cape, a one-eyed girl and a half and half man. Because of her yin eyes, Kwan knows things about their past lives. In an effort to help save their marriage, Kwan talks Olivia and her husband into visiting to the remote Chinese village where she grew up. Through some tremendous events, Olivia comes to understand and respect her half-sister.

Sometimes I'm contrary and lose out. I ignored Amy Tan when The Joy Luck Club was so popular. I remember thinking that it must be one of those "women's books" and didn't give it the time of day. Fortunately, I finally discovered Amy Tan while visiting Carl's mom. The Hundred Secret Senses is really funny and I love anything at all that smacks of the magical reality writing style and this one does so brilliantly and creatively. Amy Tan's novels provide an accurate representation of the Chinese-American experience. Moreover, her books offer priceless images of China. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 190 reviews
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"The Joy Luck Club"

Four mothers, four daughters. The Joy Luck Club was formed by four immigrant Chinese women in 1949 to play mahjong, eat, gossip and talk about their daughters. June Woo is drafted to sit in for her recently deceased mother. She has always been uncomfortable and embarrassed by the Joy Luck Club. She feels these older woman cling unreasonably to the old ways and old styles. However, the "aunties" have their effect, and out of guilt and curiosity, June learns to love the very world she has tried so hard to distance herself from. 

Amy Tan's style is to tell the stories with humor, color, and enough perspective that when the story is over, you feel like you know these women... and it made me wonder what I might not be understanding about my own mother.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 419 reviews


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About the Author:

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952. Her father was educated as in engineer in Beijing and emigrated to the Amy TanUS in 1947. Her mother was raised in a well-to-do Shanghai family and came to the US in 1949. Amy received her master's degree in linguistics from San Jose State University.

She has published essays in Life, the State of the Language and The Three Penny Review and her fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Grand Street, Lear's, McCall's, Ladies Home Journal and The New Yorker. The Joy Luck Club won the The National Book Award and L.A. Time Book Award in 1989. Many of her books are assigned reading in high school and college.

Amy also sings with the Rock Bottom Remainders a rock band that consists of a band of authors.

She lives with her husband, Lou DeMattei, in San Francisco and New York.

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