The Joy Luck Club | Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Joy Luck Club.
This section contains 841 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng

Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng

SOURCE: "Your Mother is in Your Bones," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 12.

In the following review, Cheng praises Tan's The Joy Luck Club for its accessibility and vision.

With clarity of voice and lucidity of vision, Amy Tan's delightful first novel, The Joy Luck Club, reveals to us that for all life's contradictions and tragedies, the true path of existence is convergence.

This is a hard faith to hold when modern life seems so cacophonous, so divisive. But it is key for immigrants to this country who must try to adjust to the new world without being swallowed up by it, who must raise children whose first impulse is to reject their cultural heritage. The frustration is especially deep for those immigrants cut off from their homeland, as were the Chinese who fled from the extremist politics and social upheaval of postwar China.

Tan's book revolves around four such immigrant women and their daughters, each chapter unfolding in the first-person voice of one of them. Some begin their tale far back in China, a world of traditions both suffocating and embracing; some start here in the United States, where the plethora of choices sometimes leads to making the wrong one. All are beautifully interwoven with legend and memory, archetype and longing. Like Maxine Hong Kingston's brilliant The Woman Warrior, published more than a decade ago, these tales blend the mythical and the mundane, and the endings are often astonishing connections of the two.

The mothers meet in California shortly after World War II and form a mah jong quartet, the Joy Luck Club. Even under hard-pressed financial and social conditions, they sit down regularly to play at the noisy game of tiles, to eat delicacies, and to "say stories." The daughters are born in the Chinese ghettos of California, growing up ashamed of their un-mainstream backgrounds and eccentric mothers.

With the mothers and daughters split by historical, geographic, and cultural experience, misunderstandings and cross purposes abound. As the novel begins, Jing-mei "June" Woo, the central "I" of the novel, sits down with mixed emotions to the Joy Luck Club table. She is taking the place of her mother, who has recently died, and must overcome her lifelong view of the club as a "shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war."

Unexpectedly, the three "aunties" reveal that her mother's first two children—daughters left behind in China—are alive. They give her the mission of returning to China to tell them about their mother. June protests that she did not really know her. "Not know your own mother?" one auntie cries out. "How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!"

Conversations with the "aunties" remind June of painful distances: "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."

Language itself has been a major gap. When June's mother once tried to explain the difference between Jewish mah jong and Chinese mah jong, June's puzzlement led her to think, "These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese." The two languages are literal, as well as figurative, because even in English the mothers speak with the cadence and the mindset of the Chinese. While they frequently mangle idioms—"college drop-off" for college drop-out and "so-so security" for social security—these inadvertent neologisms are uncannily apt, as are the mothers' twisted observations of American life.

Tan also demonstrates that a fundamental faith in invisible forces pervades traditional Chinese culture and that this, too, divides the first and second generations. For example, Waverly Jong is taught the "art of invisible strength" at the age of six by her mother. When Waverly launches on an unexpected career as a junior chess champion, her mother proudly shepherds her around, dispensing folksy advice like, "It is just tricks. You blow from the North, South, East, and West. The other person becomes confused. They don't know which way to run."

But being modern and increasingly cocky with her success, Waverly resents what she feels to be her mother's misplaced credit taking. One day she tells her mother off on a Chinatown street, and this, incredibly, is the beginning of the end of her prodigious career. Too late, "I realized my mother knew more tricks than I had thought."

Amy Tan has managed to express the sense and sensibility of being Chinese in a remarkably accessible way, while remaining uncompromisingly true to her own experience, her own vision. Each chapter has a self-contained quality—several were published individually in magazines—and is a marvel unto itself. However, they are tied together so adroitly in the end that your mind burns long afterward, and the book's dedication to Tan's mother and "the memory of her mother" returns to haunt you: "You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more."

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This section contains 841 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng