Family value: The Joy Luck Club brings mothers and daughters full circle

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The Big Read is on with a variety of events to honor Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club. The Big Read is on with a variety of events to honor Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club.

My first time through The Joy Luck Club, I was a teenager.  I thought the main characters were vastly different from me, operating in the foreign land of adults. This time around I realized I am the exact same age as the younger characters, and that somehow, the book had changed drastically. Or maybe that was me. Suddenly, I could see my own relationships mirrored in these women of such different backgrounds from mine.

First-time author Amy Tan conceived of the book as sixteen interrelated short stories featuring four pairs of mothers and daughters. Drawing from her own mother’s  tempestuous history as a Chinese emigre  and Tan’s experience growing up between two cultures in California, she weaves together tales of family, memory, struggle, fate,  and ultimately self-discovery. Four Chinese women arrive in San Francisco after World War II, and seeking to create connections form the Joy Luck Club which  meets weekly to play Mah Jongg, invest in stocks, and through storytelling transform their hardship into good fortune.

Buffeted by the chaos of war and reinventing themselves in America, the women draw closer by sharing their stories, even if the endings change in the retellings. All four mothers, while lamenting their adult daughters’ assimilation, believe that “American circumstances with Chinese character” will ensure better lives than they had.

Suyuan Woo has recently died and her daughter June is asked to take her place at the Mah Jongg table. There she learns her mother’s secret, that she was forced to leave infant twin daughters on the side of the road in Kweilin while fleeing the Japanese invasion.  Suyuan had discovered the twin’s location, but died before returning to China. The surviving Joy Luck Club members urge June to carry their mother’s story to her half-sisters, but June doubts she is capable.  The mothers fear that their own daughters might also not recall their own histories with the same intensity. The chapters  that follow prove, that despite the distance between generations, the mother’s histories support the daughters in their very American struggles while the daughters’ experiences help the mothers reframe their sorrows.

Tan, the American-born daughter of immigrants and a linguist by training, uses many “Englishes” to relate these stories. The mothers communicate in “broken” English, the two generations rely on “watered-down” translations and the daughters speak fluid, formal English.  The mothers have daughters “who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.” They wait, year after year, to tell of their good intentions in “perfect American English. ”

This is Tan’s triumph, rendering family history not as factual truths but as emotionally resonate memories. Anyone with a mother will recognize the this struggle for self-definition. As a teenager reading the book, I found the stories lyrical and mysterious, giving me a glimpse into the area of messy adult relationships. As an adult, living amidst messy relationships myself, I could now appreciate Tan’s empathy for her characters. Mutual frustration and disappointment abound, but Tan’s sympathetic portrayal allow the reader to recognize the complexities the characters keep hidden from each other and themselves.

It’s this humanity that will capture your imagination and leave you mulling over the tales long after you finish.   The seemingly disparate stories resolve into a cohesive narrative that celebrates both modernity and traditional ways while telling the story of the new immigrants that are changing and enriching America. —Sarah Hamfeldt

  • The seventh annual BIG READ offers plenty of opportunities to discuss The Joy Luck Club.
  • Our grand finale at Peter Chang’s China Grille is open to all book clubs who register during the month of March.
  • Not in a book club? Join the discussion at any branch of the Jefferson Madison Regional Library.
  • Explore your own family history in Jay Varner’s writing workshop at WriterHouse or try T’ai Chi  at Hiromi T’ai Chi and Chinese cooking at the Charlottesville Cooking School.
  • Catch a showing of the film adaptation, written by Tan herself and directed by Wayne Wang.
  • Discover how the International Rescue Committee is helping today’s refugees right here in Charlottesville.
  • Hear authors Mollie Cox Bryan, Wendy Sheng, Lydia Nextor, Clifford Garstang and Camisha Jones explain how they use family relationships in their writing during the Festival of the Book.
  • Hear University of Virginia faculty members Lisa Speidel and Loren Intolubbe-Chmil discuss immigration, sexism and cultural identity at UVa’s Special Collections Library.  
  • Learn how the International Rescue Committee is serving today’s refugees in Charlottesville.
  • Want to form your own Joy Luck Club? Learn how to play Mah Jongg at two different programs.  
  • Bring your children to our Little Read events, like the Skype visit with author Grace Lin at the Northside Library, the Dim Sum party at Scottsville or the Panda-monium event at the Gordon Avenue Branch.  Check THE BIG READ website for information on all of these free programs and more:  www.jmrl.org/bigread. 
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