The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan | Book Review

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan was the first book I read in 2023 and almost immediately, in a fit of emotion and productivity, wrote the review. I even uploaded this review to Instagram and Goodreads, too, I think. But somehow, to put my thoughts about this book here, seemed too intimidating for me. Maybe because writing a review on the blog needs me to open up more of myself than I would for the other media. There’s more space here for me to spill my thoughts and I know that once I start, it usually takes me more energy than I can spare to stop. And The Joy Luck Club is a book that makes me do this. Yes, it’s a confusing thing to reconcile oneself with, but it’s still a powerful narrative.

So, I’ll try to add more details on the existing review but I can’t promise I will succeed.

The Joy Luck Club, so widely loved and appreciated for being a description of the Chinese-American experience, can be summarized in one quote:

“This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou (respect) so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.”

If we were to look at our life stories, we’d need to go back to the very beginning, to see how it all started. And we couldn’t have started without our mothers, our birthgivers. And them, without their birthgivers. And the chain goes on. We go through what we do and sometimes, forget that our pain is our mothers’ pain. They carry double the pain – ours and theirs. Theirs, that we have no idea about because we weren’t there to witness it but which has left such a lasting impression on them that we feel like it digs through our own chests. And when we forget this, we must do what Amy Tan says in that quote. We must peel back our skin to reveal ourselves but also revisit the pain lurking under our mothers’ skins.

Book cover for The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan tells the lives of two sets of people: one set of mothers and the other, their daughters. Through the game of mahjong, we see relationships evolve, truths come tumbling out, sacrifices being made and brushed aside, and perspectives bring trampled upon. One of the mothers is no more, so her daughter takes her place at the Joy Luck Club, and from there, we follow the stories of these women – mothers and daughters in different sections – and see where they are coming from.

It’s a rollercoaster of a ride, this book, because as you meet the perspectives, you take giant steps towards understanding them. And as you encounter the reasons behind the daughter trying to twist away and the mother trying to hold on but also trying to give her daughter the independence she herself couldn’t have and the mother’s mother who left such a deep impact that time shattered down the middle to affect future generations – you begin to feel a familiar ache in your chest. An ache that strips you down to your very essence and leaves you bare for the emotions to unrelentingly claw at you. An ache that is also a reminder of your past, of your truth, and one that fills you with a guilt that you realize you should have been feeling but that has been assuaged by years of your mother’s wordless understanding and strength.

Because isn’t this the story of every mother and daughter? We as daughters think that our mothers need to understand us in lieu of being our mothers. But isn’t the opposite also true? We need to understand our mothers as well. We need to see them and their pasts. We need to understand the depths of their love for us, the things they went through, the reasons behind them behaving the way they do. Given, not every reason needs to be forgiven or taken into stride. But understanding it and understanding them is the first step towards reconciling ourselves to those facts. And when we shut our eyes tight because of how we weren’t being understood, you’d better believe the heart of the woman who gave birth to you was cracking inside her chest too.

And The Joy Luck Club, combining the tumultuous waters of a mother-daughter relationship with the storm that is war and the silent, ringing despair that is being an immigrant in a foreign land, weaves a story so raw and real that it unnerves you for a bit. It might seem pretty ordinary at first. You might wonder what business is it of yours to be reading about four women playing mahjong. But it is so much more than that. It reveals itself in layers. It tells you tales of epic proportions with each page turned. It might not be the best representation of the Chinese immigrant story, as people on the Internet say. But take a sip of it and swirl it around in your mind, and you’ll taste the notes of all the pain and memory of tragedy that permeates the entirety of The Joy Luck Club.

I don’t usually say this but my recommendation would be: Even if you don’t see eye to eye with the premise or are not comfortable with how the representation is done, read this book just the once. That way, one of two things will happen: you’ll be vindicated in your opinion (which I hope not), or something in the book (there are quite some things) will shift something in your opinion. Either way, there’s nothing to lose. Give it a chance. ❤

So that was my review of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. What did you think of this review? Did you like it? Did you not like it? Have you read this book? If you have, what did you think of it? If you haven’t, do you think you’ll pick it up after reading my review? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

I’ll see you in the next blog post.

Until next time, keep reading and add melodrama to your life! 😊

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