Summary of the Novel
The novel contains four sections, each beginning with a vignette depicting a stage in the life cycle. The four stories in each section explore the relationship between the mothers and the daughters at the same stage.
One series of stories focuses on Suyuan Woo, who comes to America in 1947, having lost her family, including twin daughters, during war. She does not know her daughters were rescued. Now remarried, she settles in San Francisco, has a daughter, Jing-mei (June), and starts a Joy Luck Club similar to one in China with three other women. The four form strong friendships.
As she grows up, Jing-mei and her mother struggle to understand one another. They never completely resolve their differences, and Suyuan dies unexpectedly. At the next meeting of the Joy Luck Club, her mother’s friends tell Jing-mei that Suyuan’s twin daughters have been found. They give her a check so she can visit them. As the novel ends, she meets her sisters in Shanghai.
A second set of stories focuses on An-mei, who lives with her grandmother because her mother has been disowned. When An-mei is nine, her grandmother dies; and An-mei leaves with her mother to live in the home of a wealthy man and his other wives. An-mei learns how her mother was forced into a dishonorable second marriage and why she has no control over her own life. Her mother’s subsequent suicide provides An-mei a better life.
As an adult An-mei comes to San Francisco. She and her husband have seven children, including Rose. Rose marries Ted, a dermatologist, who has an affair and divorces her. Rose is overwhelmed but recovers.
The third series of stories focuses on Lindo. She marries Tyan-yu, but he never sleeps with her. Unable to tell her domineering mother-in-law the truth, she devises a clever plan and is released from her marriage honorably. She comes to San Francisco and marries Tin Jong. They have three children—Winston, Vincent, and Waverly.
Waverly is a child chess prodigy. She and her mother maneuver through their differences throughout her childhood and into adulthood. Their differences climax over Waverly’s fiancé, Rich Schields, and the
two women reconcile.
The fourth series of stories focuses on Ying-ying. Born into a wealthy family, she is a spirited child who nearly drowns when she is four. She grows into a haughty young woman and marries a crude man who abandons her after she becomes pregnant. Ten years later she marries Clifford St. Clair, an American exporter, even though she doesn’t love him. They come to San Francisco and have one daughter, Lena. Their second child is stillborn, and Ying-ying is depressed for months afterward. Her depression affects Lena.
As an adult Lena marries Harold Livotny, who takes advantage of her. Ying-ying feels responsible for raising so powerless a daughter. She wants to encourage Lena to speak up for herself.
Estimated Reading Time
The novel consists of 16 short stories, each requiring 25 to 40 minutes to read, and four vignettes requiring five minutes each to read. The entire novel can be completed in about 10 to 11 hours.
The Life and Work of Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s grandmother, Jing-mei, was widowed when her daughter Daisy was young. She was later forced to marry a wealthy man who had raped her. Since Chinese custom prohibited widows from remarrying, both Jing-mei and Daisy were shunned. Jing-mei eventually committed suicide by eating food with raw opium in it. Daisy later married a man who abused her. She divorced him and came to America, but he forced her to leave their three daughters behind.
In California she met John Tan, an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who had also fled China in the late 1940s. They married soon afterwards. Amy, their second child and only daughter, was born in 1952. Her Chinese name, An-mei, means “gift from America.”
Amy Tan said her parents “wanted us to have American circumstances and Chinese character” (Current Biography, 560). However, in order to assimilate, the children felt forced to choose “American” ways and to refuse “Chinese” things. This led to a deep sense of “shame and self-hate,” Tan said (Current Biography, 560). For example, she once wanted to change her Chinese features so much that she went to bed with a clothespin on her nose every night for a week.
After the deaths of her father and older brother, eight months apart, the family spent a year in Europe. Tan was 16 years old. She finished high school early; when her family returned to America, she began college. There she met Louis DeMattei, her future husband, who is now a tax attorney.
Daisy Tan was unhappy when her daughter not only transferred schools to be with DeMattei, but also changed from pre-med to studying English and linguistics. The two did not speak for about six months. Amy Tan completed both her B.A. and M.A. degrees and was working on a doctorate when she left school to work with retarded and developmentally disabled people. Later she started a successful free-lance nonfiction writing business, partly in response to a supervisor who severely criticized her writing. When she and her husband bought Daisy Tan a place to live, Daisy conceded that perhaps writing was a good career for her daughter.
In 1987 Amy Tan went to China with her mother to meet her half-sisters, whom she did not know about until she was 26 (“Mother With a Past,” 47). Tan said later, “There was something about this country that I belonged to. I found something about myself that I never knew was there” (Current Biography, 561).
Her first short story, “Endgame,” was published in 1985 and was followed by “Waiting Between the Trees.” When she learned that publishers were interested in the outline for The Joy Luck Club, originally titled Wind and Water, she left her free-lance business and finished the novel in four months. It was followed by The Kitchen God’s Wife in 1991 and The Moon Lady, a collaboration with Gretchen Schields, in 1992. She also worked on the movie screenplay of The Joy Luck Club, released in 1993.
The Joy Luck Club takes its title from a gathering begun in wartime China by Suyuan Woo, who met with three women in a weekly attempt to maintain their sanity and luck. They prepared special foods and played mah-jongg, even though the city was filled with horror. In 1949, in San Francisco, Suyuan resumed the tradition with three new friends.
One critic has suggested that the book is structured like the four corners of the mah-jongg table at which the women sit, with four stories in each of the book’s four sections, and four mother-daughter pairs. In mah-jongg, one critic has noted, “The game starts, always, with the east wind,” and June Woo, whose narrative begins and ends the book, sits on the east side, taking her dead mother’s place. The game ends when one player has a complete hand, and June completes her mother’s life and dearest wish when she returns to China, with a ticket paid for by the Joy Luck Club, to meet the two half sisters her mother was forced to leave behind in her flight.
Recurring motifs link the stories of each mother-daughter pair. The second mother, An-mei Hsu, bears a scar from the spilling of hot soup on her neck as a child, an accident that nearly killed her. She carries a grievous inner scar as well: Her own mother had been banished, her name never spoken. Only later does she understand how her mother dishonored the family by becoming the third concubine of a wealthy married man. Yet when An-mei’s grandmother was dying, her mother returned to cut a piece of flesh from her own arm to make a magic healing broth. “This is how a daughter honors her mother,” An-mei remembers. “It is shou [respect] so deep it is in your bones.”
This same mother poisoned herself, timing her death so that her soul would return on the first day of the lunar new year to settle scores with the rich man and Second Wife, ensuring a better future for her children. Dead, she had more power than ever in life.
Lindo Jong, the daughter of peasants, was betrothed at the age of two to her first husband and became a servant in his mother’s house until their marriage. Although the family nearly convinced her that a daughter belonged to her mother-in-law and that her husband was a god, Lindo discovered herself on her wedding day: “I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me.”
Thus, Lindo’s willful and brilliant American daughter Waverly learns “the art of invisible strength” at six from her mother, who tells her, “Strongest wind cannot be seen.” Waverly becomes a chess prodigy, but her early confidence falters as she tries to outwit the mother she fears. The tension between mother and daughter seems strongest with this pair. Waverly wants to become her own person, but her mother wonders, “How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?”
Little Ying-ying St. Clair, daughter of the wealthiest family in Wushi, celebrated the Moon Festival by falling off an excursion boat at night and never found herself again. After an unfortunate first marriage, she lost her “tiger spirit” and became a listless ghost. Motifs of the dark other self, of dissolution and integration, appear in her stories, yet mother-daughter love forms a stronger bond. Ying-ying’s daughter struggles to rescue her mother’s spirit after the devastating birth of an anacephalic child, and the mother, in turn, tries to give her daughter courage to break free of an empty marriage: “I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.”
In the final section of the book, the mothers connect their past to their daughters’ lives and encourage them to be strong. As a Chinese grandmother tells her baby granddaughter, “You must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope.”