I first found Amy Tan when The Kitchen God’s Wife was hip and hot. I thought she had a gift for what I call in my head “smooth writing”. That is writing which draws you in, enables you to get sucked in by the story, and still has the liquid beauty that makes you gasp at the occasional phrase. It was with some hesitation and the expectation that this book would let me down like The Hundred Secret Senses did that I picked up The Bonesetter’s Daughter at a book sale.
Tan tells the story here of Ruth, a San Francisco based ghost writer, and her complex relationship with her elderly mother. Ruth is shacking up with the man she loves and has two young step-daughters to take care of. Ruth feels smothered and miserable and on top of it all she has her elderly, failing mother to look after and deal with. LuLing, Ruth’s mother, lives nearby in an apartment and is losing her memory quickly. As she feels her memory fading she writes her story in Chinese calligraphy, which she had attempted to teach Ruth long ago. When Ruth becomes painfully aware of her mother’s failing mental capacity she has the story translated into English. As she it the wool falls from her eyes and she is able to empathize with her mother.
I don’t want to talk too much about LuLing’s life, presented as a story-within-a-story and a first person narrative, because I found the thread-by-thread unraveling of the story to be delicious. Suffice it to say that the story is rich in cultural detail and explains LuLing’s obsession with ghosts and particularly the ghost of her nanny “Precious Auntie.”
Amy Tan writes a great deal about mother’s and daughter’s and the generation gap that becomes more emphasized when one generation is raised in one culture and the other in an entirely different one. This book, I felt, steps beyond that and deals also with the idea that we must know someone’s motivation and history in order to fully explain their behavior. Joseph Campbell talks at length in The Power of Myth of the ideal of acceptance and seeing the divinity in other people. That’s easy to do when the other person brings you a cup of coffee or shares a good story but that jerk who cut me off on the interstate is obviously just a jerk. LuLing has been controlling and manipulative and difficult. She has threatened suicide over every issue under the son. At the beginning of the book I couldn’t stand her. As I read her story, though, everything began to fall together and she became a sympathetic character and a person with divinity within.
I found this to be a very good read. I did find that the relationship between Ruth and her boyfriend hit a hollow note with me. They end up happily-ever-after with next to nothing to explain the change. It’s also just another Amy Tan novel about mothers and daughters. Outside of her lexicon I think it’s a very good book but I do wish Tan would explore some new themes.
One cool side note: the photo on the cover of the book is actually Tan’s grandmother. I thought that was kinda cool.