Last Updated on November 14, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1203
The Impact of the Past on the Present
LuLing’s past relationships impact her current relationships. For instance, her relationship with her mother, who she thought was her nurse, was a close one. Precious Auntie did everything for LuLing and loved her fiercely, while LuLing took Precious Auntie for granted in many ways but loved her as a mother figure. Their relationship became strained when Precious Auntie tried to prevent LuLing’s marriage to an evil man.
After their argument, Precious Auntie took her own life, and LuLing has carried a great deal of guilt ever since. Her guilt impacts her relationship with her own daughter, Ruth, who thinks her mother has “always been difficult, oppressive, and odd.” Ruth never understood her mother’s worries or references to ghosts, so she dismissed her mother’s words as silly. Now, as an adult, Ruth continues to dismiss her mother’s thoughts and keep the truth from her. For example, she tries to downplay LuLing’s dementia—even though she is terrified about the diagnosis.
Ruth’s childhood also impacts her adulthood. Because she never had a strong relationship with her own mother, she is unsure how to parent Art’s teenage daughters. In exploring the dysfunctional cycle that afflicts Ruth and LuLing, however, Tan also indicates that the cycle can be broken. After Ruth reads her mother’s life story, she develops a new understanding and appreciation for LuLing, and the novel hints that the two now have a chance at a real relationship. History repeats itself, as LuLing gained a new appreciation for Precious Auntie after reading her story; the major difference is that LuLing did not have the second chance with her mother that she now has with her daughter.
Acknowledging Aging and Dementia
Tan tackles the difficult subject of dementia through LuLing. Ruth is concerned that her aging mother is losing her mind, as she seems to speak of things that make no sense. Ruth recalls that when she was a little girl, her mother talked to Precious Auntie, which Ruth found unsettling. LuLing, however, was convinced that her daughter had a connection with the afterlife, and she tried to communicate with Precious Auntie through Ruth. After all these years, Ruth still considers her mother odd, and she notices that LuLing’s eccentricities are increasing. LuLing’s confusion impacts all aspects of her life: she cannot remember where her purse is and claims to have witnessed O. J. Simpson committing murder, and her tenant claims that LuLing falsely accused her of not paying rent.
Hearing her mother’s diagnosis terrifies Ruth even more. Even though the doctor provides her with a potential explanation for her mother’s behavior, she is still unsure of what to do or expect. After Dr. Huey tells her to schedule LuLing for an appointment with a neurologist and to see him in a month, Ruth leaves his office more confused and scared than before. She has no definitive answers, and she feels she must act as if everything is fine in order to avoid upsetting her mother and family. Here, Tan shows another perspective on dementia, highlighting the mental and emotional toll the condition takes not only on patients but on family members.
As she navigates the story of her mother’s life, Ruth learns how to begin to deal with LuLing’s illness. She places LuLing in an assisted living facility so she can receive the constant care that Ruth is unable to provide, and she ends up finding her mother a companion in Mr. Tang. Mr. Tang dotes on LuLing and indulges her stories, taking her to art museums and visiting her frequently. Ruth is able to bring true joy into LuLing’s life, perhaps for the first time. Tan does not negate the impact of LuLing’s dementia, however; it remains ever-present as LuLing forgets information, mixes stories together, and rewrites the past. Rather, the novel advocates facing the reality of illness and making the most of the time one has.
The Importance of Finding One’s Voice
Ruth literally loses her voice at the same time every year. The first time this occurred was nine years ago, when she first moved in to Art’s apartment. She initially thought she had laryngitis as a result of having been ill, but when the symptom returned a year later, Art teased Ruth about the illness being psychosomatic. Ruth considers the idea but doesn’t really explore it until she begins telling her story, when it becomes clear that Ruth’s annual laryngitis is symbolic of her lack of voice in her life.
Metaphorically, Ruth has no voice in her relationship with Art, whom she allows to control their lives and to guilt her into doing things. Because they live in his place, she feels she has no control over her surroundings, and she even has little physical space to call her own. Ruth calls her office “the Cubbyhole” because it is a small pantry-like space: “A pull-out cutting board held her laptop, a flour bin had been removed for knee space.” During one of their arguments, Ruth wants to say “It’s your house,” but she resists because she knows it will only escalate their problems.
Although she has always gotten along with Art’s daughters, Dory and Fia, Ruth struggles with the relationship now that the girls are stubborn teenagers who won’t listen to anyone. Ruth finds herself trying unsuccessfully to discipline them, while their father ignores the problem. The girls split their time between their parents, so Ruth is unsure where she fits in. Although Ruth lives with Art and his daughters, she is aware that she is not really their mother, and her words now mean little to Dory and Fia, even though the girls previously worshipped her.
Ruth also struggles to find her voice in her relationship with her mother. LuLing is a stubborn, independent woman who never shies away from telling her daughter what she thinks. She holds strong opinions and frequently tells Ruth what to do in front of others. For example, she instructs Ruth on how to deal with Dory and Fia, saying, “Tell them you don’t allow this anymore.” Ruth feels she has to be quiet around her mother and avoid saying what she really means. All her life, she has made excuses or told white lies to LuLing because it was easier than telling the truth. Now, as an adult, she is so used to sugarcoating her words that she cannot have a real conversation with her mother.
Finally, Ruth also has no voice in her work: she translates other people’s words, never writing down her own thoughts, though she secretly wishes she could write something herself. Afraid to take a risk or make a change, she continues lamenting her stagnant life.
Ultimately, though, Ruth finds her voice in all aspects of her life. She learns to speak up to Art about what she really wants, has her first real conversations with LuLing, and begins to write her own book. At the end of the novel, Ruth is happy with her new life and has found a reason to write: “Ruth still has her voice.”
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