Amy Tan Tan, Amy (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amy Tan 1952–

(Full name Amy Ruth Tan) Chinese American novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Tan's career through 1996.

Amy Tan gained immediate popularity and garnered high praise from critics with her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989). The novel explores the unique situation of the Asian-American immigrant, but has universal appeal in its expression of the conflict inherent in mother-daughter relationships. Tan's next two novels were also both popular and highly acclaimed.

Biographical Information

Tan's father, John Tan, an engineer and Baptist minister, immigrated to the United States from China in 1947. Her mother, Daisy, came to the United States from China in 1949, leaving behind three daughters from a previous marriage. Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952, and given the Chinese name En-Mai (Blessing of America). Throughout her childhood, Tan's mother told her stories about her Chinese heritage, and she uses these stories in her fiction to emphasize the importance of the act of storytelling. Tan lost both her older brother Peter and her father to brain cancer in the late 1960s. After their deaths, her mother decided to move the rest of the family to Europe in order to escape what she felt to be the evil of their diseased house in California. Tan rebelled while in Europe and was arrested when only sixteen years old. When her family returned to the United States, she entered Linfield College in Oregon, where she intended to study medicine, but decided to pursue a degree in English. Tan transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned her bachelor of arts degree in 1973. In 1974 she married Lou DiMattei and received her master's degree in English and linguistics. Tan enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of California Berkeley, but withdrew from the program in 1976 after the murder of her best friend. From 1976 to 1981 she worked as a language-development specialist for disabled children. She edited a medical journal and worked as a technical writer during the 1980s. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, brought her instant acclaim and rose quickly on the New York Times best-seller list. She followed her initial success with a second critically acclaimed novel, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991).

Major Works

Through sixteen interconnected stories told by four immigrants from China and their four American-born daughters, The Joy Luck Club illuminates the nature of mother-daughter relationships in both cultures. The theme of Tan's novel focuses on the impact of past generations on the present. The structure, in which the daughters' eight stories are enveloped by those of the mothers, implies that the older generation may hold a key to resolving the problems of the young. The Kitchen God's Wife again tackles mother-daughter relationships, but this time Tan limits herself to one family and the relationship between Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl. The relationship between Winnie Louie and Pearl is strained because of the secrets they keep from each other. It is only when they reveal their secrets that they establish a connection. The Moon Lady (1992) is a children's story based on an episode from The Joy Luck Club which is derived from a Chinese legend. In The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), Tan focuses on the relationship between two sisters: Olivia, an American-born daughter of a Chinese father, and Kwan; her older Chinese-born sister from her father's previous marriage. The conflict in this novel arises from Kwan's mystical belief in ghosts and previous lives and Olivia's pragmatic attachment to the concrete and the real.

Critical Reception

Praising Tan's storytelling abilities, commentators note that the chapters of The Joy Luck Club could stand on their own as short stories. Merle Rubin asserted, "Each story is a gem, complete in itself. Yet each is further enhanced by its relationship (direct or indirect) with the others." Tan is often compared to Maxine Hong Kingston in her presentation of the Asian immigrant's experience in America. Criticism leveled against Tan includes the implausibility of The Hundred Secret Senses, particularly the physical evidence of Kwan's previous life; and reviewers question the authenticity of Tan's descriptions of Chinese life in her novels, even though others cite her particularization of Chinese culture as one of her greatest talents. Helen Yglesias stated that "it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm." Reviewers consistently laud Tan's gift as a story teller and the compelling nature of her narratives. Elgy Gillespie stated, "Once again I found myself reading Amy Tan all night, unable to put the story down until I knew what happened in the end, sniffling when I got to the sad bits … and finally going to sleep at dawn with the conviction that Tan had provided an education for the heart."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Joy Luck Club (novel) 1989
The Kitchen God's Wife (novel) 1991
The Moon Lady (children's literature) 1992
The Joy Luck Club [with Ronald Bass] (screenplay) 1993
The Chinese Siamese Cat (children's literature) 1994
The Hundred Secret Senses (novel) 1995

Merle Rubin (review date 21 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chinese-American 'Bridge' Club," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, No. 102, April 21, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin asserts, "In Tan's hands, these linked stories [of The Joy Luck Club]—diverse as they are—fit almost magically into a powerfully coherent novel."]

Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is a touching, funny, sad, insightful, and artfully constructed group portrait of four mother-daughter relationships that endure not only a generation gap, but the more unbridgeable gap between two cultures.

The Joy Luck Club is an informal "institution" started by Suyuan Woo upon her arrival in San Francisco in 1949. Suyuan finds three other Chinese immigrant women to play mah jongg, cook and consume special foods, tell stories, gossip, invest in stocks, and plan for joy and luck. In the years that follow, the club links the four families, enabling them to pool resources and keeping them in touch with their past as they take on the challenges of adjusting to a new country.

Nearly 40 years after the first meeting, as the novel opens, Suyuan Woo has died and her place at the mah jongg table is assumed by her 36-year-old daughter, Jing-mei. Like many another American-born child of immigrants, Jing-mei has little understanding of her mother's values or the world that shaped them, although recently, the general interest in ethnicity has prompted her to revive her Chinese name, "Jing-mei," in preference to the American "June May," and has made her more curious about her roots.

When her Joy Luck "aunties" (Lindo Jong, An-mei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair) offer Jing-mei a trip to China to meet her long-lost half sisters, whom Suyuan was forced to abandon as infants while fleeing war-torn Guilin, the "aunties" (now edging into their 70s) urge Jing-mei to tell her half sisters the story of the...

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Scarlet Cheng (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robb Forman Dew (review date 16 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pangs of an Abandoned Child," in New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991, p. 9.

[In the following review, Forman Dew points out a few problems with Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife, but concludes that the novel is "in the end, greatly satisfying."]

Within the peculiar construction of Amy Tan's second novel is a harrowing, compelling and at times bitterly humorous tale in which an entire world unfolds in a Tolstoyan tide of event and detail. No doubt it was daunting to attempt a second book in the wake of the enormous success of The Joy Luck Club, but none of Ms. Tan's fans will be disappointed. The Kitchen God's Wife is a more ambitious...

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Elgy Gillespie (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Amy, Angst, and the Second Novel," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1991, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review, Gillespie discusses the problem of a second novel and asserts that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife is both different from her first novel and successful in its own right.]

Granted, she has her reasons. When Amy Tan wrote amusingly and tellingly about "Angst and the Second Novel" in a recent Publishers Weekly, she was so sympatico about the frightening game of fiction that it seemed unfair to those who usually call the shots around here: the reviewers. In essence, our Amy defanged all her potential critics, silencing...

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Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 11 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Luck Dispensers," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 13, July 11, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review, Fitzgerald states that it is the attitude of the older generation that distinguishes Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife.]

Amy Tan was born in San Francisco soon after her parents emigrated from Communist China. A few years ago she joined a Writers' Circle, which told her, as Writers' Circles always do, to write what she had seen herself. She wrote about what she had seen herself and what she hadn't—her own experience and her mother's. She produced a long, complex and seductive narrative, The Joy Luck Club, which was one of the best-sellers of 1989....

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Helen Yglesias (review date September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Second Time Around," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 12, September, 1991, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review, Yglesias delineates the reasons that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife may surpass the success of her The Joy Luck Club.]

Amy Tan is an immensely popular writer. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a knockout success, and her second is well on its way to equal, if not surpass, it. The readers who loved the first will surely love the second, since both tell the same story—and this time around Tan has executed the work better in conception, in design, in detail and in sheer pleasure for the reader.

If this...

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Scarlet Cheng (review date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Amy Tan Redux," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 15, 19.

[In the following review, Cheng lauds Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife stating, "The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel."]

Yes, it's true: Amy Tan has done it again—with searing clarity of vision she has spun a tale that lyrically weaves past and present, myth and memory. And she has written a true novel this time, one sustained story that lasts all of some four hundred pages.

For the many who read her first book, The Joy Luck Club, the second opens on familiar territory—Pearl is the grown daughter of a...

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Walter Shear (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club," in Critique, Spring, 1993, pp. 193-99.

[In the following essay, Shear analyzes the mother-daughter relationship in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]

Orville Schell's review of The Joy Luck Club for the New York Times emphasizes that those millions of Chinese who were part of the diaspora of World War II and the fighting that resulted in the triumph of the Communists were subsequently cut off from the mainland and after 1949 left to fend for themselves culturally. Though Schell is struck by the way this book renders the vulnerability of these Chinese women in America, the novel's...

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Stephen Souris (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Only Two Kinds of Daughters': Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club," in MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 99-124.

[In the following essay, Souris applies Wolfgang Iser's theory concerning multiple-narrator novels to Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]

Amy Tan has said that she never intended The Joy Luck Club to be a novel. Instead, she thought of it as a collection of stories. But she did plan on having the stories cohere around a central theme, and she did plan the prefaces from the start, although they were written last. More importantly, her collection of first-person monologues participates in and contributes to a tradition of...

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Judith Caesar (essay date Fall 1994–1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge in The Kitchen God's Wife," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall, 1994–1995, pp. 164-74.

[In the following essay, Caesar states, "By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the 'otherness' of what Americans consider foreign [in The Kitchen God's Wife], Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative."]

If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard says, a "master narrative" is required to legitimate artistic expression, for the past thirty years the legitimizing narrative of mainstream American literary realism has been the quest for personal fulfillment. The increasingly stagnant, if not...

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Bonnie Braendlin (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s in, around and about Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life, edited by Nancy Owen Nelson, University of North Texas Press, 1995, pp. 111-24.

[In the following excerpt, Braendlin analyzes how the women's liberation movement has affected mother-daughter relationships, specifically focusing on the mother-daughter dialogics in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]

In the 1970s I became, almost simultaneously, a feminist teacher/critic and the mother of a daughter. While analyzing novels emerging from the Women's Liberation Movement, where daughters struggle to free themselves from...

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Gloria Shen (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Born of a Stranger: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Storytelling in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 233-44.

[In the following essay, Shen discusses the importance of storytelling to the mother-daughter bond in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]

Amy Tan's first work, The Joy Luck Club, is a challenge to the novel as a "narrative paradigm" in several ways: form, narrative structure, and narrative techniques. It is not a novel in the sense that only one story, "his story" is presented; it is a work of sixteen "her stories."...

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Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon," in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 174-210.

[In the following essay, Wong analyzes the anthropological aspects of Tan's novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife and their place in literary tradition.]

The sensational success of Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, is the stuff of publishing legend. Before the shrewd eye of agent Sandra Dijkstra spotted a potential winner, Tan was entirely unknown to the literary world. But lavish advance praise—the dust jacket of the...

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Claire Messud (review date 29 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghost Story," in New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1995, p. 11.

[In the following review, Messud praises the characterization of Kwan in Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, but says that the novel fails to convince.]

The tremendous success of Amy Tan's two previous novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, lay in her capacity to evoke, vividly and with subtle humor, the cultural dislocation of America's Chinese community. She has conjured the tortuous lives of an older generation of women whose fate brought them from China to this country, as well as the frustration and fascination of their American-born daughters. It is not...

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Penelope Mesic (review date 5 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sisterly Bonds," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Mesic praises Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses stating, "She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever."]

Down in Birmingham, Alabama, under a sign that says Ollie's, there's a circular stainless-steel structure like a just-landed flying saucer. It seats 400 and is always full. Only two things are served there, barbecue and pie. Clearly, Ollie, whoever he was, realized that no third thing could ever be as good and quit while...

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Donna Nurse (review date 6 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 45, November 6, 1995, p. 85.

[In the following review, Nurse asserts, "Kwan's dreams comprise the most skillfully realized sections of [The Hundred Secret Senses], mingling elements of gothic romance and folktale with historical chronicle."]

In Amy Tan's earlier novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, individual personal histories powerfully influence future family dynamics. Even though traditional Chinese superstitions about luck and fate shape both stories, neither work strays far from the realistic mode. In Tan's latest novel, however, ghosts replace...

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M. Marie Booth Foster (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Voice, Mind, Self: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 208-27.

[In the following essay, Booth Foster discusses the importance of daughters listening to their mothers' voices in order to discover their own voices in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.]

In The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan uses stories from her own history and myth to explore the voices of mothers and daughters of Chinese ancestry. Each woman tells a story...

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Ruth Pavey (review date 16 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 9, No. 390, p. 38.

[In the following review, Pavey considers Tan's unifying device in The Hundred Secret Senses unconvincing, but asserts that, "this does not detract from the great appeal of her character, Kwan (who combines saintly good humour with wit, practicality and guile), or the enjoyable liveliness of her style."]

Kwan, the co-heroine of The Hundred Secret Senses, has yin eyes, second sight. At least she thinks she has, which is why she talks of relating to ghosts as an everyday experience. There is nothing fey about Kwan. Having spent the first 18 years of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Greenlaw, Lavinia. A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in Times Literary Supplement 4846 (16 February 1996): 22.

A review in which Greenlaw concludes that "The Hundred Secret Senses is fast-paced but ultimately aimless."

Houston, Marsha. "Women and the Language of Race and Ethnicity." Women and Language XVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-7.

Houston traces the importance of multiple languages in Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.

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