Tan's two best-known novels, The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), both showcase the complex and often difficult relationships between mothers and daughters—specifically immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Focusing on the nuances of culture and language—issues she discusses explicitly in her essay "Mother Tongue" (1990)—Tan uses humor and traditional oral conventions to explore generational disconnections among women.
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATIONTan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, to parents who had immigrated to the United States from China separately in 1947 and 1949. Tan was strongly influenced by her mother's storytelling about the family's Chinese heritage, and she later used oral storytelling as a narrative device in her fiction. Tan's older brother and her father both died of brain cancer in the late 1960s. After their deaths, her mother moved the family to Europe to escape what she believed to be the evil of their "diseased house" in California. The family settled first in the Netherlands and then in Montreux, Switzerland. Tan finished high school at the College Monte Rosa Internationale, where she was considered an outsider among the children of ambassadors, tycoons, and princes. Filled with anger and resentment at the loss of her father and brother, Tan rebelled and fell in with a group of drug-dealing social outcasts; she was arrested when she was sixteen years old. She later planned to elope to Australia with a mental patient who claimed to be a German army deserter. Shortly thereafter, her mother moved the family back to the United States.
Tan entered Linfield College in Oregon, where she intended to study medicine but decided to pursue a degree in English instead, much to her mother's dismay. She transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1973. The following year she received a master's degree in English and linguistics. Tan enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, but withdrew from the program in 1976 after the murder of her best friend and a subsequent relapse into a period of anger and depression. 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 in the 1980s.
Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, brought her acclaim, and rose quickly on The New York Times bestseller list. She followed her initial success with another critically and popularly admired novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. Her other novels include The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001). Tan has also written a collection of essays and several children's 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. An important theme in the novel is the impact of past generations on the present. The structure, in which the daughters' eight stories are interwoven with 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 also concerns mother-daughter relationships, but focuses on only one family and the tension between a woman named Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl, who have persistently kept secrets from each other. Once they begin to reveal their secrets, they establish a connection. In The Hundred Secret Senses Tan delineates 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 first marriage. Kwan's mystical belief in the existence of ghosts and previous lives clashes with Olivia's pragmatic attachment to the concrete and real. In The Bonesetter's Daughter an American-born Chinese woman named Ruth finds two packets of writings in Chinese calligraphy, and learns that they are the memoirs of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and has written down events of her life before her disease renders her incapable of doing so. Ruth works with a translator to decipher her mother's writing, and discovers details concerning her mother's past in the remote mountains of China.
Tan's work has achieved both popular and critical acclaim, and appeals to her largely female readership because of her ability to illustrate the common breakdown in communication that occurs between women of different generations. Critics have praised her complex narratives and storytelling as well as her poetic use of language in the evocation of a woman's search for identity within languages and stories that are often not of her own making.