The Joy Luck Club begins is Amy Tan’s first novel, and was first published in 1989. The novel begins in 1949, where four women, all recent arrivals in San Francisco, decide to ‘meet weekly to play mah-jong and tell stories of what they left behind in China’. These women call themselves the Joy Luck Club. The novel is split into four sections, each of which includes a chapter told by three of the four women in the club – An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-Ying St. Clair – or their daughters – Waverly, Lena, Rose and Jing-Mei. Tan has decided to begin the novel with a small cast list featuring her protagonists.
The first perspective used in The Joy Luck Club is that of Jing-Mei Woo, who has had no real choice but to join the club: ‘My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah-jong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts’. All of the women within the Joy Luck Club met each other through the First Chinese Baptist Church when first arriving in their new hometown. Jing-Mei says: ‘My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English’. The idea for the club had been dreamed up by her mother whilst she was still a resident of her native China, ‘on a summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground, their wings so heavy with the damp heat’. Her vision for the club included the following view: ‘We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought… And each week we could hope to be lucky. The hope was our only joy’.
As with her other novels, Tan weaves in the vivid past of the Chinese, making it a firm and intrinsic element of her protagonists and, indirectly, of their daughters. The disparities between both cultures – Chinese and American – is highlighted throughout, particularly so with regard to the generational divide. The differences between different areas of China is also addressed. Lindo says: ‘That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs… You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse’. Tan outlines the way in which language can be misconstrued in its meaning from one culture to another. The Joy Luck Club is culturally stable, and uses Chinese vocabulary, customs and a wealth of traditional foodstuffs to ground it in time, place and culture. The merging of the cultures is fascinating, as is the outlining of Chinese cultural constraints and expectations. From a cultural perspective, The Joy Luck Club is a most interesting novel.
Tan’s prose, particularly with regard to the speech of her characters, is beautiful. She excels particularly at descriptions. The stories of each of the protagonists are woven in throughout. The way in which different first person perspectives have been used works so well. The majority deal with the present, and all include details of the past, which have shaped the women. Throughout, Tan exemplifies the bravery of women in the face of dire adversity. The relationships between the women are believable and translate well to the page. Each thread of the story works well, and an extremely absorbing novel is created as a result.