Book review: The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan

Earlier this year — when I still lived in Houston — I posted a review of Amy Tan’s memoir, in which I expressed a desire to also read The Joy Luck Club and Valley of Amazement.

Twice, from two different libraries in two different states, I checked out an audiobook of The Joy Luck Club. Both times they were the abridged version, which I only realized after listening, and I was so outraged and frustrated by being cheated of the whole story that I didn’t feel equipped to write a book review.

I liked what I heard, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I actually know the story or can pass judgment on it.

However, I heard The Bonesetter’s Daughter in its entirety. I chose it a little at random, I suppose — I have Valley of Amazement waiting now in my car, though it weighs in at an impressive 21 discs. However, a much longer-awaited audiobook is going to come before it.

Back to The Bonesetter’s Daughter. I recognized a lot of autobiographical detail from The Opposite of Fate in the description of Ruth’s relationship with her mother Lu Ling (a depressed, angry woman who had immigrated from China before having her daughter, and who had a previous marriage that was largely a secret, and who is now suffering the debilitating illnesses of old age).

The only unfamiliar details, which I didn’t recognize from Amy Tan’s own life, were that Ruth lived with her long-time boyfriend and his two teenage daughters. This situation is introduced as an unhappy one, where Ruth is sidelined and unappreciated, her position both uncertain and taken for granted. This mirrors her career as a ghostwriter, as a few telling scenes depict how she does all the hard work for careless, flighty, egotistical clients, all without a fraction of the credit she deserves.

I thought about returning the book, actually, in that first part with the focus on Ruth’s mundane unhappiness and her growing worry over her mother’s decline. It was just too bleak and realistic, which is the last thing I seek out in my entertainment.

However, I’m glad I stuck with it, because the story changed. First it jumped back to Ruth’s childhood with a couple of lengthy flashbacks: one demonstrating her mother’s uniquely expressed love and superstition, and then junior-high Ruth’s own budding awareness of sex and puberty. That second story could have stood alone with the title “The Dangers of Incomplete Sex Education.” Honestly, it was the most suspenseful part of the book, keeping me on the metaphorical edge of my seat as the fallout with her older neighbor Lance played out.

The third part of the book was Lu Ling’s memoir, which also turned into a gripping story of early 20th-century China, starting in a small traditional village and visiting Peking (what is now Beijing), an American orphanage, and then Hong Kong. Very educational and sobering, as nearly every immigrant’s story is. Precious Auntie’s story was also fascinating — she had such a forceful presence, even mute, as Lu Ling always knew her. It’s amazing to me that she developed her own extensive sign language and taught it so well to Lu Ling.

Then the book picked up in present day, as Ruth learned all her mother had never told her and struggled to do right by her. I was relieved that her long-time partner stepped up to help and to rekindle his relationship with her, slowly building to a happy ending that Ruth, and the reader, deserved.

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