Book Review: The Joy Luck Club

I recently read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I saw the movie many years ago so I was already familiar with the story, but only recently picked up the book to read.

Joy Luck Club

The premise of the story is the relationship between mothers and daughters, present and past. June’s mother has recently passed away and she has taken her place at the mahjong table alongside her mother’s three best friends. Each woman grew up in China, eventually moving to the United States and raising their children here. The novel flashes back between the mothers’ past lives in China and their daughters, American-born Chinese. For the most part the mothers’ faced a lot of obstacles and tragedy in their lives. On the other hand, their daughters grew up in the United States never knowing what their mothers’ went through and just trying to fit in with their American upbringing in school and society and traditional Chinese mothers at home. These girls grow into women with their own issues mostly revolving around their own marriages.

Why is it called The Joy Luck Club? That is answered pretty early on in the novel and it refers to June’s mother who started the club back in China during World War II. The war was effecting everyone and she and other war wives would get together to play mahjong and cook up feasts to take their mind off things and find something to celebrate. Some people criticized them for daring to enjoy themselves during this time, but they continued. Interestingly enough, it was my students who brought up this point during our book club meeting. They all really loved the idea of The Joy Luck Club, because it was a way for these women to escape reality and they found a reason to be happy about life amidst all the chaos.

The novel is filled with sadness and as the reader it can be frustrating that these daughters never really understand what their mothers have been through and sacrificed. It was difficult to keep track of all the characters and keep all the mother/daughter pairings straight because they jump back and forth so much. I also was reading this over an extended period of time, so I think it was more difficult for me to remember who was who. I remembered the story lines, but I didn’t always remember which character went with which story. I felt like the story lines, aside from June’s, didn’t really have any closure and it was almost like Tan forgot to address what happened to these other women. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I feel like the movie did wrap things up for each character whereas I feel like the novel left me hanging with some of the daughters. I’ll have to rewatch the movie soon and compare.

I bookmarked some quotes/little passages from the novel that I really liked:

In two year’s time, my scar became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain.

How true is that quote? Wounds heal and over time you don’t feel the same pain that was once there, but scars remain no matter how faded they are. But you learn to protect yourself from the pain.

When something that violent hits you, you can’t help but lose your balance and fall. And after you pick yourself up, you realize you can’t trust anybody to save you – not your husband, not your mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from tilting and falling all over again?

This is an important quote, because a lot of the novel is about these women who don’t even realize how strong they are until they do. If that makes sense.

‘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 and listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away.’

I love this quote. The metaphor is beautiful and haunting at the same time.

And the final one I picked out,

And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.

Are we all destined to repeat the past?

There were a few changes between the two and they must be pretty noticeable if I noticed them after not seeing the movie in so long. I will definitely need to watch the movie soon now that I’ve actually read the book.

Despite the characters being a little difficult to keep track of and what I felt to be a lack of conclusion for some of the characters, I think it’s still worth a read. There are some strong messages in the novel dealing with mothers and daughters and female empowerment. Tan definitely has a poetic way with words, just look at the quotes/passages I pulled out for proof!

Have you ever read this and/or watch the movie?

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