Amy Tan has established her literary career on the generational and cross-cultural tensions characteristic of immigrant Chinese mothers and their American daughters. The Bonesetter’s Daughter continues that tradition but with a sad personal note: one character develops Alzheimer’s disease, as did Tan’s mother, Daisy. As she dedicates the book to her mother and grandmother (“The heart of this story belongs to my grandmother, its voice to my mother”), Tan reveals that she never knew their real names until Daisy Tan’s death in 1999. A photograph of her grandmother in China appears on the book jacket and figures prominently in the novel.
Ruth Young has shared a San Francisco apartment with her Caucasian lover, Art Kamen, for the past nine years. At forty-six, she has finally managed to distance herself from her eccentric, Chinese-born mother, LuLing. However, Ruth is forced to reevaluate their relationship when she becomes aware that her mother’s behavior is growing dangerously erratic. LuLing fries eggs with the shells on, wanders the neighborhood in her pajamas, and believes she has won ten million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. She is by turns depressed (“Look my sad life!”) and angry (“Maybe I die soon”). In one heartbreaking scene, she proudly informs her doctor that she has personally witnessed a notorious murder.
Ruth, a book doctor, is employed by authors to revise their self-help books in order to improve them. What she does not realize is that her mother has had to revise her entire life: her name, her birthdate, her marriage. While cleaning out a desk drawer, Ruth finds a manuscript that her mother once gave her and that she has avoided reading, containing LuLing’s account of her life in China. Written in flowing Chinese characters in her mother’s artistic hand, it begins: “These are the things I know are true.” (In fact, the first word of the novel is “Truth.”) The Chinese ideograms are nearly impossible for Ruth to translate, for she has always resisted whatever her mother wants to tell her. Now, facing LuLing’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the responsibilities it will entail, she begins, laboriously, to translate her mother’s story.
LuLing’s autobiography begins with the history of her mute nursemaid, Precious Auntie, who emerges as a ghostly third presence in this novel. Born in China at the close of the nineteenth century, Precious Auntie (whose real name LuLing cannot remember) is the daughter of a highly respected doctor, a bonesetter from Mouth of the Mountain, a village in the Western Hills south of Peking (Beijing). He sets and heals bones that have been crushed in the local coal mines and limestone quarries, employing herbs, maggots, and bleeding as cures. The bonesetter is revered; his family has followed this profession for nine hundred years, father to son, with the aid of a secret cave filled with ancient dragon bones that, ground into powder, can cure any pain. These lucrative bones can also be taken to medicine shops in Peking and sold.
Precious Auntie is well educated by her father, who has already challenged tradition by refusing to bind her feet. Because she is his only remaining child, her mother and brothers having died of typhoid when she was four, he teaches her to heal others. When she is nineteen, a young man named Liu Hu Sen, from the neighboring village of Immortal Heart, seeks the bonesetter’s help because his skittish horse has stepped on his foot. At the same time, the infant son of coffinmaker Chang is brought in with a dislocated shoulder. Once Chang learns of the family’s hidden cave of dragon bones, he becomes interested in Precious Auntie as a second wife, but he is politely refused. Liu Hu Sen, a gentle soul from a reputable family of ink-makers in Immortal Heart, likewise seeks a wife and is soon betrothed to Precious Auntie. He courts her with poetry and comes to her at night; he is LuLing’s true father.
On her wedding day, Precious Auntie’s doctor-father spares no expense. Together they travel to the Liu clan’s village with carts, guards, and her dowry—a jar of opium and a jar of dragon bones. En route they are attacked by two men, one of whom is Chang, disguised as a Mongol bandit, who wants the...
(The entire section is 1734 words.)