The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club – Mass Market Paperback 1990

Read from September 23rd to October 2nd 2014

My Rating : 2/5 stars

 

There are two constructivist principles that, although, mainly used in education, could quite easily apply to all dynamics of the society, especially immigration. I’m talking about assimilation and accommodation, the first acting one way (from host to guest, so to say) the other both ways (but also mainly to the host benefit). In the end, however, to borrow an image from Piaget (and to remain thus in the same constructivist field), the goat may be fatter and healthier after eating the cabbage, but there is little of the cabbage itself left. 

Do I think this to be a bad thing? Not necessarily. On one hand, the foreign intake to a culture enriches it in unimaginable ways – think of Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Emil Cioran, Irène Némirovsky – to remember only some foreign writers and what they did for the English and French cultures. On the other hand, immigration is usually a question of choice, that is, the cabbage consciously takes the risk of being chewed up by the goat. So the pain of mastication and digestion process (to take a little too far and a little too cynically Piaget’s allegory) can also create memorable works.

And from this point of view, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club is an interesting enough book, describing the struggle between the need to conserve their identity in the assimilation process and the desire to accommodate to the American culture for the benefit of their children of four immigrant Chinese families over two generations. There are many interesting stories about customs, traditions, social and family relationships and prejudices in pre-communist China, some very alien to the Western and American mentality, other not so much. 

The most touching parts of the book stress daughter-mother relationships, that is, the way in which daughters, who fought all their lives for independence, come slowly and inexorably to understand the truth of the phrase: “Your mother is in your bones”, and the implications of this truth, which are not only genetic, but also historical, social and ethical:

Her wisdom is like a bottomless pond. You throw stones in and they sink into the darkness and dissolve. Her eyes looking back do not reflect anything. I think this to myself even though I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body... But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to... pull her to where she can be saved.

However, with all its poignant meanings and beautiful, sensible writing, The Joy Luck Club did not strike a chord with me. on the contrary, and I tried, all along my reading, to put a finger on this persistent feeling of dissatisfaction. At first I thought it was because of the overused technique to loosely hook different narratives in order to create an almost novel, instead of a more appropriate collection of eight short-stories (I frankly prefer the other way around, stories that seem to preserve the echo of others, while remaining frustratingly ambiguous, like Alice Munro’s Runaway or Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder). It was not even the pestering symmetry (the order of the stories 4-4-4-4, the 4 mother-daughter pairs, the decision to go to China in the first story and the going to China in the last, and so on), even though I think they contributed also to my refusal to consider this book a great book. It is a good one, no doubt, but its biggest flaw, which prevents it to become a masterpiece, is its predictability. I mean, I perfectly understand why Frank Chin accused it of promoting stereotypies – all you could expect from the prose of an American-born Chinese writer is there. And when I say “all” I literally mean it, as in nothing less and, unfortunately, nothing more.

To conclude, I am not sorry I have read it, it is a readable, even though slightly overrated book. At least, in my humble opinion, to quote the favourite expression of a friend of mine.

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