This made for a very special read. First because I had not read anything centring around Chinese Americans before. But it is definitely the writing and the characters that made this book unique. Here is the blurb, my review follows.
In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts.
Structured as a mah jong game, this novel tells the stories of two generations of women, mother-daughter duos: Jing-Mei who just lost her mother Suyuan, Waverly and Lindo, Lena and Ying-Ying, Rose and An-Mei. They tell their story themselves actually. And as this choir reminisces about their past, we gather piece after piece to reconstruct their life and personality, their pains and hopes.
“‘Now you see,’ says the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn t swallow your own tears.'”
Their is an unshakable melancholy in these stories. A heartrending sense of loss and grief, of secrets never shared. And the languid, lyrical and quite demanding writing captures it perfectly, especially when it draws on Chinese myths and other elements of the folklore. Totally entranced, I let myself being embarked on this quest to the origins, this journey on the depth of their souls. The mothers’ stories are about suffering, and surviving against all odds; the daughters’ ones are about an urgent quest for a fulfilment that seems unattainable. And for times to times, despite the melancholy, I found myself laughing at the mention of absurd situations. It was all bitter sweet.
“‘A girl is like a young tree,’ she said. ‘You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak.'”
This is a novel about a failure to transmit, a break in the chain of inheritance. Getting all the sides of these women stories, we understand the gap between them, how they drifted apart, ending up evolving in different orbits. Because of different cultural mindsets but also, maybe by lack of talking, or listening.
“But in the brief instant that I peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in.”
Reading their stories is like contemplating the loose threads of their familial tapestries. Threads that some of them may have the opportunity to tie, while others will have to seek peace and closure another way. And slowly, daughters will understand how whatever far away from them they feel, they hold a piece of their mothers in them.
“Secrets are kept from children, a lid on the top of the soup kettle, so they do not boil over with too much truth.”
And although some readers may find the mothers more likable than their selfish, careless, clueless daughters, I ended up feeling a certain tenderness for all of them, in their struggle to live, hope and grow, to fulfill themselves and to connect.
“Then you must teach my daughter the same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.”
Conclusion : a delicate yet intense must read. I will certainly go back to it in the years to come, because it is a delight to read, and also because I am not sure I have grasped the whole depth of these stories.