The Joy Luck Club

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In a brief story that opens The Joy Luck Club, a woman leaves Shanghai for America, carrying with her a beautiful swan which she is determined to give one day to her yet unborn daughter, as a symbol of her high aspirations for her in the new land. At the immigrations office amid a confusion of forms and foreign sounds, the swan is confiscated, leaving the woman with only one loose feather and a now dazed conviction about why she had even wanted to come to America. Nevertheless, she saves the worthless-looking feather, still planning to hand it someday to her daughter, in hopes that it will carry some of the good intentions for her offspring that had originally launched her on her way. The Joy Luck Club is about those things handed down from Chinese-born mothers to their American-born daughters; like the swan’s feather, this legacy carries with it a mixture of both hope and disappointment, pain and love. More than only a record of the cultural transition from the old world to the new, The Joy Luck Club asks a universal and penetrating question: What exactly is it that daughters, in any culture, inherit from their mothers?

Eight women, each of four mother-daughter pairs, narrate the novel. Their common link is the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mah-jongg party, formed in San Francisco in the 1940’s by four Chinese emigrants as a way to erase the tragedies left behind in war-torn China and to foster new hopes for their futures. As the novel begins, in the 1980’s, one of the members of the club, Suyuan Woo, has just died; her Americanized daughter June is expected to take her mother’s place at the mah-jongg table. The rituals of the evening’s game are at once familiar and mystifying to June, calling into relief the powerful cultural dissonance between the two generations and reminding June of all those qualities in her mother which she had intimately known yet never fully understood. Toward the end of the evening the aunties spring a surprise on June: The two daughters her mother had borne from a previous marriage and that she tragically had to abandon have, after a years-long search by her mother, finally been located, sadly, within weeks of her mother’s death. The aunties have arranged for June to go to China and meet these women, so she can tell them all she can about the mother they never knew. “What will I say?” June wonders, “What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything.” Dismayed but not surprised at June’s response, the aunties see in her their own Americanized daughters,just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.

Semi-autobiographical, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club becomes itself the means by which this connecting hope can be passed on to future generations. Tan, an American-born daughter of a Chinese-born mother, was moved to write the book after her mother’s heart attack. Even when Tan was a child her mother complained how little her daughter knew and understood of her. In the dedication Tan replies, “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”

In the novel, June resolves to go to China and tell her half-sisters all she knows of her mother; the aunties eye her warily. So the text begins, a shared text, with each mother and each daughter weaving her own interior meditation on this generational gulf and the struggle toward connection. The book is divided into four sections, comprising four chapters each. June is the only narrator appearing in all four sections; the mothers speak in the first and fourth sections, while the daughters narrate the second and third. The device of eight narrators works somewhat like a liquid house of mirrors, a series of reflecting pools simultaneously reflecting and not so much distorting as remaking images and events. What is seen through one pair of eyes is played back through another’s; each time more is learned. Sometimes it is the same incident that is seen from different sides, other times it is an oblique reverberation, as when June receives a jade pendant from Suyuan, echoing the gift of the feather described on the opening page.

The story of the swan’s feather sounds out the hopes and intentions of the giver of the gift, while the account of the necklace amplifies the bewilderment, even ingratitude, of its recipient. Says June,The pendant was not a piece of jewelry I would have chosen for myself. It was almost the size of my little finger, a mottled green and white color, intricately carved. To me, the whole effect looked wrong: too large, too green, too garishly ornate. I stuffed the necklace in my lacquer box and forgot about it.

The necklace is emblematic of the broken communication between mother and daughter—and the sharp pain that tears beneath the surface of this relationship. What one values, the other derides. The daughters sneer at their mothers’ stinginess, their haggling with shopkeepers, their foolish superstitions, their belief that danger lurks around every corner, their broken English, their garish clothes. The mothers sit in judgment on their daughters’ foolish choices, their wasted opportunities, their love affairs with useless modern objects, and their incomprehensible alliances with Caucasian men.

Though their cultural differences make this rift particularly acute, the gulf that Tan describes is fairly universal. It is not only among Chinese-American mothers and daughters that there is so much mutual disappointment, so many hidden resentments, as well as such a profound yearning for a greater love that can transcend the pain. June still feels the sharp pangs of her mother’s disappointment in her as a child, when she never quite materialized into the child prodigy that her mother hoped would bring June an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as all the boasting rights Suyuan could have then enjoyed among her friends. Yet a few months before her death, after a dinner party where June is sorely one-upped by her rival Waverly, Suyuan takes June aside and bestows the gift of the jade pendant, calling it her “life’s importance.” June accepts this as a deep expression of her mother’s love, despite the fact the intricate carvings are opaque to her, carrying secrets she supposes she will never understand. After her mother’s death she wears the necklace all the time, in hopes that she might absorb her mother’s meaning through her skin.

The mothers’ hope is that their daughters will grow to combine all the best of Chinese character with all the best of American circumstances and opportunities. Their pain is that much of the Chinese character seems to have gotten lost in the translation. It is a Chinese custom for daughters to honor and listen obediently to their mothers, but American freedom infiltrates and distorts this tradition. As a child, Waverly Jong exhibits a remarkable skill at chess. Disturbed at the way her mother swells up with pride and takes credit for her own tournament victories, Waverly publicly humiliates her. Years later, Lindo Jong still burns under her daughter’s disregard when at the hairdresser’s, Waverly discusses Lindo with the stylist as though she were not even there. Nevertheless, Waverly’s narrative reveals how much power her mother still holds over her. For weeks she tries to confide in her mother that the man she is currently seeing will soon become her husband; she lives in terror of her mother’s response. Inside she acknowledges that Lindo has the power to ruin completely her love affair, by pointing out some flaw in her fiancé that, once seen, will make him seem irretrievably small in her eyes. The American-born daughters may seem to speak a new language of disrespect, but the psychic hold their Chinese mothers wield is unquestionably strong.

To the degree that the daughters fear their mothers’ disapproval, the mothers fear they will slip from their daughters’ lives unseen, unremembered, the precious thread of connection severed by their sour-faced daughters’ cool American disregard. It is difficult, however, to hold the daughters accountable for those secrets which their mothers have never shared. In the narratives of An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying lie the keys which would unlock the grim-faced behaviors that have hurt and mystified their daughters Rose, Waverly, and Lena. The mothers’ narratives reveal a legacy of pain, abandonment, humiliation, and loss that somehow clarifies those tendencies which their daughters have grown to hate and fear. It also becomes clear that each mother in her own way has had a troubled relationship with her mother, dating the legacy of hurt and misunderstanding farther back than this one generation. What emerges from the mothers’ narratives is a portrait of remarkable survivors; their daughters do not fully understand, but for that they can hardly be blamed.

Given that so much has gone unexpressed, what then does get passed on from mother to daughter? “You can see your character in your face,” Lindo tells her daughter. In the hairdresser’s mirror Waverly studies her cheeks, her nose; they are the same as her mother’s, and, Lindo notes, they are the same as her own mother’s before her. The flesh carries the memory, and if the nose gets passed on, something of the spirit does too. What clearly emerges from the narratives are the intangible, unspoken legacies each girl has received. Waverly has Lindo’s cunning, her gift of strategy, her competitiveness, and her sharp tongue. Rose, like An-mei, has “too little wood”; each bends too easily to others’ opinions and must learn to speak her own mind. Lena, like Ying-ying, must find her tiger spirit and fight her tendency to slip invisibly into the background. June finds herself growing territorial, hissing at the neighbors’ cat just as her mother had done. The similarities between mother and daughter gradually take shape, much like the slowly developing Polaroid photo of June and her two half-sisters taken at the Shanghai airport. They watch as their images become clear; not one of them is exactly like their mother, but taken together their likenesses conjure up Suyuan’s as well. As An-mei tells June, “Your mother is in your bones.”

The Joy Luck Club is Amy Tan’s first novel. Though it is common for first novels to exhibit some unevenness, particularly in characterization, Tan’s characters are fully and beautifully drawn. Her language is graceful, her eye for detail is strong. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that the eight different narrators and their filial connections are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but the richness of the book makes it well worth the effort to do so.