Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Written Word Weds. - This One Would Have Really Thrown Off My Honors Thesis

Continuing with my "I need some filler, I know, I'll use my old homework assignments!" theme, here's my review of the book I chose for my Multicultural Novel: Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter.

A quick preface: I'm a pretty big fan of Tan's work, having read and re-read her first three novels countless times while working on my Honor's Thesis about her use of supernatural themes in her novels. I think this over-familiarity with her earlier work accounts for my automatic comparison of this book with her others; I'm really intrigued by the concept of her new book, Saving Fish From Drowning which sounds as far removed from the plots of the previous novels as Halloween III: Season of the Witch was from the other Halloween movies. How's that for an analogy?

Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001. ISBN: 0-399-14643-1

This novel follows the life of Ruth Young, the only daughter of Chinese immigrant LuLing Young. Ruth and her mother have always had an adversarial relationship, but recently LuLing’s behavior has started to worry Ruth. A doctor’s visit confirms Ruth’s fears that LuLing has started to suffer from memory loss and dementia. As Ruth struggles to deal with the changes in her mother’s life, she reflects on their history together. This reflection reminds her of a manuscript her mother had written for her in Chinese but which Ruth had never had translated. Ashamed of herself for not reading her mother’s history before, Ruth has the manuscript translated. It is this manuscript which makes up the bulk of the second half of the book, as Ruth discovers the truth behind the many secrets her mother has kept over the years, including the true identity of LuLing’s mother and the calamitous events which separated LuLing from her true family.

This book exemplifies several of the features of multicultural fiction. The sections devoted to LuLing’s life go into great detail of explaining the culture, religion, folklore, and social aspects of China in the early 20th century. The sections devoted to Ruth feature the struggle between the ideas of her immigrant mother and her own Americanized ideas. The book also shows themes that Okura and Su list as common in Asian American fiction, especially mother-daughter relationships and the pressures of fitting into the Anglo culture.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Tan has an excellent sense of humor which is most evident in the sections told from Ruth’s P.O.V. Ruth herself is an intriguing and complex character, and I enjoyed all of the sections of the novel which focused on her. I wasn’t quite as enraptured by LuLing’s story, however. While still well-written, the shift in narrative voice from third-person omniscient to first-person didn’t appeal to me. I sometimes felt annoyed by LuLing’s self-centered world view, but it wasn’t that big of a detriment. Actually, probably the biggest stumbling block I had was that I kept comparing this book to Tan’s other works. The flip-flopping between mother-daughter stories reminded me of The Joy Luck Club, and the focus on the hard-knock life of LuLing and her belief that she was cursed reminded me of The Kitchen God’s Wife.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Asian American fiction. I think the book would primarily appeal to people who enjoy Literary fiction. There are some romantic aspects in the story which might appeal to Romance fans, but most of the romantic storylines don’t end happily, and those that do aren’t really the main focus of the book. Although some supernatural themes are suggested, I don’t think they’re concrete enough to appeal to Fantasy fans.