Book Club: The Joy Luck Club
"This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.
When it comes to stories about the universal struggle between perfectionist mothers and their less-than-perfect daughters, no one has reached quite the same heights of understanding as Amy Tan.
Her own struggles with her ambitious immigrant Chinese mother is legendary - it's no secret that they had a difficult relationship, which was only reconciled just before her mother died.
The Joy Luck Club was Tan's first published novel and what a stonkingly good debut it still is. The story is about four Chinese-American families who are part of a mah-jong club called "joy luck" - the book opens with the death of one of its members, whose place at the table is replaced by her daughter, Jing-Mei. Through the game of mahjong, the mothers and daughters eventually recount their individual tales, with all the vignettes coming together at the end.
Most people I know have only seen the film, which, while very good, doesn't have the breadth of detail of the novel. And some of the core relationships and endings have also been changed, so it doesn't hold quite the same poignancy.
Tan has a powerful grasp of language - she has a doctorate in linguistics, so I presume this has contributed to her seemingly intuitive knowledge of how characters interact through words. Often, what is unspoken reveals as much as, if not more than, what is actually said.
One of the best storylines in the novel is the one where Jing-Mei's mother forces her, as a little girl, to take piano lessons. But because her music teacher is deaf, she manages to half-arse her way through the lessons, all the while with her mother believing that she is actually some kind of child prodigy. Things come to a head when she has to perform in a talent show to which her mother invited all her friends, and they realise that Jing-Mei can't actually play very well.
The plot illustrates Tan's true gift, that of taking an everyday incident and infusing it with her own unique humour and bittersweet meaning. The piano, for instance, isn't really a piano - it really represents the relationship between Jing-Mei and her mother.
At the end of the vignette, Jing-Mei as an adult, after her mother's death, inherits the old piano and opens it up to play the song that she blundered her way through as a child.
After a few bars, she notices another piece on the next page which seems easier, and starts playing that - only to realise that they are actually two halves of the same song.
Have you read The Joy Luck Club? What are some of your favourite scenes from it?
* Next week's book recommendation is The Twelve, the sequel to the very excellent The Passage, by Justin Cronin! There'll also be a chance to win some tickets to Spookers (travel excluded, sorry).