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Merle

Merle

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan I've liked some of Amy Tan's other work, but The Joy Luck Club just didn't work for me. It's a story of four Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American daughters, with seven narrators (all but the one mother who has died). The book is divided into 16 chapters, perhaps more accurately described as 16 related short stories; the women have one chapter each from childhood and one from adulthood, while Jing-mei, the daughter of the dead mother, has 4 chapters from adulthood. Most of the acclaim for this book seems to come from the portrayal of the relationships between the mothers and the daughters; they seem true-to-life but are repetitive (every daughter lacks respect for her mother and understanding of her Chinese origins; every mother speaks in vague metaphors and is always right). Many of the events portrayed are interesting, and you can't help but learn a bit about Chinese culture. If you like short stories and read them as such, this book might work for you, but it didn't for me, for two main reasons:

1. The women's voices are indistinguishable. All of the mothers have basically the same personality; the daughters have a few differences but all talk the same way and have similar life stories. Seven first-person narrators would be a challenge for the most experienced of authors, and this is Amy Tan's first book, so it's no surprise that she falls short. I had a hard time remembering which daughter went with which mother and which childhood with which woman. As a reader of epics with dozens or even hundreds of characters, I almost never have trouble telling characters apart, especially when there are only eight of them, but I did here.

2. There's no resolution. Stories need a beginning, middle, and end, but this one's missing the end. Jing-mei's sections book-end the novel, and she has a satisfying personal resolution, but the other six women are left in limbo. For instance, one of the younger women is in a troubled marriage. At the end of her chapter, she finally confronts her husband... and then it's over. Did they work to solve their problems? Did they get divorced? Did they deal with the personal issues that complicated the marriage in the first place? We don't know. At least three of the women's stories end this way. I don't mind books ending with some general hope for the future rather than an exhaustive tying up of loose ends, but the plot arc needs to come to a close.

One criticism I have to disagree with, though, is the portrayal of men, especially Asian men, whom many other critical reviewers say are portayed negatively. I didn't think that was the case at all: all the girls' fathers are sympathetic figures (even the clueless American one), and two of the three troubled or failed marriages on the part of the younger generation involve women who are just as much at fault as their (white) husbands. No one is in an abusive relationship, and the men don't blatantly favor their sons over their daughters. Some of the older women have nasty men in their pasts, but with each one comes a nasty woman who encourages and enables him.

Amy Tan isn't a bad author, and at this point she was probably still learning her limits. If you're interested in her work, I would recommend The Hundred Secret Senses, which showcases her strengths but lacks the weaknesses of this book.