The Joy Luck Club is a well-written novel that is also magnificently depressing. I thought it was an accomplished piece of work, but I also don’t want to read it again anytime soon … or possibly ever.
This book tells the story of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. The narrative point of view switches between the four mothers and four daughters, spanning early 20th-century China to 1980s San Francisco. It’s a richly-woven tapestry of experiences and perspectives, ranging from the familial tragedies of pre-revolutionary China to the inevitable cultural rift between immigrants and their children. It’s a painfully vivid tapestry which Tan weaves with excruciating skill.
Predictably, my personal context has greatly informed my reaction to this book: I myself am a child of Chinese immigrants (although I grew up in 2000s Australia), and so I found this book painfully relatable. And I mean that as no exaggeration. Almost every interaction between the mothers and daughters, those words hurled across intergenerational and intercultural chasms, was something that resonated with me because I had experienced the very same things.
What’s more, my copy of this book was gifted to me by a friend (also the Australian-grown child of Chinese immigrants, like me) after I’d ranted to him about an exposive fight I’d had with my mother. I actually put off reading this book for ages, because I knew from his own recounts that I’d probably find it a somewhat distressing read. I was right.
That said, this reaction I had is a testament to Tan’s skill in writing something that – in my opinion, at least – is authentic and vividly representative of the Chinese immigrant experience. I mean this not just in terms of the exasperations of cultural transplants like me, but also in terms of the struggle of immigrant parents. So I’m giving her props for creating a work that shows a perspective not often seen in English language fiction, and for doing it very well indeed.
It’s not just my own personal experience that made this a heavy read for me, one that I blazed through as quickly as I could. Quite apart from that, the stories Tan tells of the mothers are all varying shades of terribly tragic. Tan writes well – these tales of woe weren’t unpleasant because they were clumsily written or trite, but because they were so deftly woven.
I think The Joy Luck Club is a good book. Tan writes with a clear voice that masterfully handles multiple perspectives and eras. Both the tragedies of the characters and the painfully authentic portrayal of the immigrant experiences show her considerable skill as a writer. However, they’re also the reason why I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this book, but would nonetheless recommend it to anyone interested.