The Joy Luck Club
Sixteen individual stories connect
the generations of four Chinese families that have been uprooted
and brought to the United States. The frame for the story finds
Jing-mei Woo taking her dead mother's place at the gathering of
the San Francisco Bay Area's Joy Luck Club, a group of four women
who grew up in China. At the end of the novel, Jing-mei is in
China with her father, meeting for the first time the half-sisters
whose existence had only recently become known to her. Jing-mei
comes to an after-the-fact understanding and acceptance that had
eluded her while her mother was still alive. Between the two ends
of this planned but powerful epiphany, we are given a series of
stories, first of the mothers and then of the daughters. We learn
first of the past, and then move about in the present and near-present.
These are the main characters:
- Suyuan Woo - She started The Joy Luck Club in Kweilin,
China, where she had been left by her husband, a Kuomintang officer.
The club was a way of keeping up one's spirits in dark times.
When the tide began turning in favor of the Japanese, Suyuan
was warned, and joined the stream of refugees who were leaving
Kweilin on foot. As time passed, more and more of the weakened
refugees' treasures had to be left behind. Finally, Suyuan had
to abandon her infant daughters. When she tells this story to
her daughter, all she can offer by way of taking the edge off,
is to reassure her: "You are not those babies."
- An-mei Hsu - An-mei is the daughter of a disgraced
mother, a woman who is not a proper wife, but a third wife, a
concubine. "Never say her name", are the grandmother's
instructions to An-mei. Nonetheless, when the grandmother is
dying, An-mei sees her mother cut flesh from her own arm to strengthen
the soup with which she tries to revitalize the old woman. Left
behind at that time, An-mei finally rejoins her mother when she
is nine years old. It is a physically comfortable but psychically
debilitating life in the rich man's house. Getting no proper
recognition for herself or the baby she has borne, An-mei's mother
ostentatiously commits suicide. It is on that day that An-mei
"learned to shout."
- Ying-ying St. Clair - We first see her as a young girl at
the Moon Festival. Ignored by the adults, she wanders about and
manages to fall off the barge on which the family is celebrating
the festival. Fished out of the water by a coarse group of fishermen
and their families, Ying-ying finally gets to see the Moon Lady,
who has power to grant a wish. Many years later, she recollects
what it is she wished for, on that day when she was so pathetically
abandoned and lost: "I wished to be found." She later
married and loved a man who proved fickle, and who abandoned
her. She aborted the child she had been carrying. Later, working
in a shop, she met Clifford St. Clair, who wanted to marry her.
She agreed, without much enthusiasm, and was borne away to St.
Clair's United States.
- Lindo Jong - As a child, Lindo was promised to
a neighbor boy, Tyan-yu Huang. When she was 12, a flood destroyed
her family's property, and they all moved south, leaving Lindo
behind with her new family. She was less than impressed with
either her husband-to-be or his family. After their wedding ceremony,
she semi-inadvertently blew out her husband's half of the ceremonial
wedding candle. Playing on the Huang family superstition and
credulity, Lindo devised a scheme to free herself from her oppressive
marriage, and it worked. Arrived in the United States, she found
herself working in a fortune cookie factory, and was appalled
at the fatuous texts she was supposed to be baking into the cookies.
"These are not fortunes, they are bad instructions"
she complains, but it becomes increasingly difficult to make
- Jing-mei Woo - Jing-mei suffers tremendously from
her mother's relentless expectations. In America, one can be
anything, and one of the things one can be is a prodigy. The
flaw in that plan was that the family "didn't immediately
pick the right kind of prodigy." Training as a pianist was
just not very successful -- the talent appeared to be lacking.
As a young adult, what Jing-mei wound up doing was writing advertising
copy, and even that was not done very well. When it became apparent
that what she had turned out for her friend Waverly's tax firm
was too bad to use, she realized "I was no better than who
I was." That was the night that her mother passed on to
her an heirloom jade pendant, calling it her "life's importance."
- Waverly Jong - Waverly was named after the street
her family lived on in America. A chess set that her brother
got at the Baptist Christmas party caught her interest, and she
turned herself into a chess prodigy. It gave her a great sense
of power to excel at "this game of secrets in which one
must show and never tell." At the age of 9, she was a national
champion, with her picture next to Bobby Fischer's in Life magazine.
By the time she was 14, she had lost her confidence, and given
up competition. She eloped at 18 with Marvin Chen, and had a
daughter, Shoshana. She became a tax attorney, and is planning
to marry Rich, who has the same profession. Rich is emphatically
not Chinese, and does not fit in easily with Waverly's family.
- Lena St. Clair - Lena lives next to the Sorcis, whom
she knows mainly as the "loud" family. Their uninhibited
and unembarrassed living amazes her. Lena's mother, "Betty,"
is pregnant, but loses the child. Not too stable to start with,
this pushes her over the edge and makes her "crazy."
Afterwards, she seems always to be resting, she had "become
a living ghost." When she grows up, Lena finds herself married
to Harold, whom she had worked with at an architectural firm.
The two have a relationship of compulsive (even pathological)
equality, in which everything is measured and balanced, and nothing
is spontaneous. It is important to charge everything -- from
ice cream to the cat's flea powder -- to the right person's account.
Not surprisingly, Lena finds that "none of it seems right."
- Rose Hsu Jordan - When we meet Rose, she is getting
ready to be divorced from Ted. Their marriage was not so much
a matter of passion as of convenience. Rose wanted to be independent,
and getting married was a way of getting that done. A husband
was what allowed it all to happen, and the pair were "conjoined
where my weaknesses needed protection." Rose's mother had
believed in what the Christian religion promised; she looked
to the faith that brought blessings in its train (although her
bad pronunciation turned it into fate). She had a large, vital
family -- in addition to Rose, there were the boys: Matthew,
Mark, Luke and Bing. When the baby, Bing, drowns during a family
picnic, An-mei loses her religion. The Bible that once had propped
up her life now just props up the short leg of a shaky kitchen
Reprinted with permission
from Novelist (EBSCO Publishing)
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