The Joy of “Joy Luck Club”

As a prelude to my next blog, I wanted to reproduce here a review I had done of Amy Tan’s ‘Joy Luck Club’ a couple of years ago.

I am always looking for books that are unputdownable. Books that want me to keep flipping the pages, drink the words in and savor them slowly. Books ironically, I don’t want to end, but can’t wait to finish. When I was a kid, Enid Blyton made sure I had a continuous stream of afore mentioned books at my disposal with the Famous Five Series. As I got a little older, I was reading Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. After that, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse made sure I had that my saga of wanting nothing more than getting back to my book was kept alive!

I realized that murder mysteries were the books I was most interested in and especially Hercule Poirot made sure that once I started reading the latest case he was on, I couldn’t stop until he caught the perpetrator of the crime. It was great fun while it lasted. Soon I got over my mystery fixation and started branching out into more mature reading.

I found a lot of books that I just devoured, but soon life started to kick in and my reading was limited to a book here and there. Now was the time I needed books that belonged to the unputdownable category for me to put life on the back burner and turn the pages. Well, I found some but for the past few months, I haven’t been able to find anything that would remotely match that category.

While doing some spring cleaning our house, I chanced to see Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. I did not remember buying it. I took it in my hands. It was a very old paperback and I opened it to see my nephew’s name written on the first page. This intrigued me since the book itself seems to explore mother-daughter relationships. The big bold letters “Nine Months on the New York Times bestseller List” helped too and I was soon putting it away as a book to read rather than one to be donated.

As many of my intelligent readers must have figured out by now, this book fit into that elusive category – like a 100% fit. Right from the start till the very end, Amy Tan had me captivated and awestruck by her writing style. Being a daughter and a woman, I could relate completely to the book. I have read a fair bit of Chinese literature in the past year including the much acclaimed “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. While that was a good read too, it was too long and sometimes the one-track story got so intense, that one longed for a break, a diversion from the main characters. ‘The Joy Luck Club’ is that and so much more.

I will go a quick synopsis of the story for the reader’s benefit. The story is about Chinese Mothers who have immigrated to the United States. All of them have daughters who are Americanized and feel embarrassed about their heritage. There are a few stories running in parallel that I had trouble keeping track of because I have a condition of not quite associating names with characters. This made it hard for me to follow the story, but I didn’t mind. I was just savoring the writing style. Incredible would be the word. I can’t imagine how someone can write so well. That’s what writing is – pure magic.

When one can ignore the story in favor of the writing style, that to me denotes the ultimate achievement of the writer. It is like the actual story takes the background and you are left savoring the deliciousness of the lines. The words that make up the lines, the words that are mere air but seem to resonate together to vibrate at a frequency that matches your own. That to me represents the biggest achievement for a writer and that is what separates the great writes from the good ones.

One of my very good friends and an avid reader of my writings used to compare this state to gliding. He would say that some Chapters in my works would give him the feeling that he was gliding and not just barreling down the story. Reading Amy Tan’s work gave me the same feeling. That I was gliding slowly, meandering about, looking over the vast expanse which sometimes was beautiful and lovely, sometimes was stark and depressing, sometimes mundane and ordinary and at once fantastic and amazing! Before I venture off more into the gliding, let me return to the book!

Amy Tan writes about so many simple situations that have been labeled as normal by the society in general, but how these situations could systematically erode the person that is going through them to a point that even their own mothers are unable to recognize them! The book celebrates strong mothers and how their presence (and even absence) impacts the lives of their daughters. Whether it is a good or bad impact, the reader is left to decide. The author just presents the stories with no judgment whatever on who is right and who is wrong.

The lingering theme running through all 4-5 stories that make up the book, is the presence of not so talkative mature women who have gone through a lot when they were young and how they fought their circumstances, went against them and managed to give their daughter’s a better life only to see the young women struggling in their lives. Struggling not because of the circumstances surrounding them, but rather with the choices they made. The contrast between the lives of the poor and illiterate women who had nothing but their spirit guiding them and the spoilt kids that grow up into unsure women even though they have everything going for them forms the crux of the stories. Each life, each relationship finding something similar in each other.

The one thing you might find is that Amy Tan does make one feel that the American way of life is not as honorable and right as the Chinese. But I guess considering she is writing from the point of view of a crusty old woman, we could forgive her that transgression!

Read it and you will find yourselves drawing parallels with your own life.

I am reproducing some of the best lines from the book that have touched me in some way or the other.

After a while, I didn’t think it was terrible life, no, not really. After a while, I hurt so much I didn’t feel any difference. What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny mushroom and bamboo shoots I had helped prepare that day? What was more satisfying than having Huang Taitai nod and pat my head when I had finished combing her hair one hundred strokes? How much happier could I be after seeing Tyan-yu eat a whole bowl of noodles without once complaining about its taste or my looks? It’s like those ladies you see in American TV these days, the ones who are so happy they have washed out a stain so the clothes look better than new.
Can you see how the Huangs almost washed their thinking into my skin? I came to think of Tyan-yu as a God, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please, someone I should follow and obey without question.

I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see., that no one would ever take away from me. I was like the wind.

For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.
And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So, I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable.
And even worse, I never asked her what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope?
For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons stopped. The lid to the piano was closed, shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.

I wasn’t so afraid of my mother was I was afraid for Rich. I already knew what she would do, how she would attach him, how she would criticize him. She would be quiet at first. Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And even if recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.

“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 to 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 pills you out and throws you away.”

Here’s to strong mothers and to their poor hapless daughters who take forever to realize that their moms were right and knew better all along and here’s to the words that are mere air, but words that resonate so much with you, that you feel like you should be the one’s penning them!