We gave it a C
When The Joy Luck Club appeared in 1989, its author was justly hailed as an important new writer. The novel compellingly dramatized mother-daughter relationships as well as the tensions between immigrants and their assimilated offspring. Tan’s second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, though a thematic retread of the first, had at its center the engaging saga of a mother’s Chinese past, a tale featuring evil in-laws, World War II, and a journey to America. Her latest, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, another such intergenerational story, feels like a second-generation copy, as if somewhere in all the xeroxing, the author’s narrative skills have gone a little fuzzy.
The heroine is Ruth Young, a middle-aged Chinese American living in San Francisco. Ruth ghostwrites self-help books with titles like Internet Spirituality and Defeat Depression with Dogs. She has a live-in boyfriend named Art, who, for all his yoga workouts and decaf cappuccinos, is not impressively sensitive. Art has two teenage daughters; their presence allows for superficial references to soccer-mom anxieties including attention deficit disorder and cropped T-shirts.
Ruth’s chief worry is her mother, LuLing, a stubborn and superstitious widow. Flashbacks find LuLing using her young daughter as a medium to contact the spirit of a mysterious ancestor named Precious Auntie. ”Most of the time she thought the sand-writing was just a boring chore,” Tan writes. ”Yet Ruth had also gone through times when she believed that a ghost was guiding her arm, telling her what to say.” In life, Precious Auntie was LuLing’s nursemaid, a woman dear to her heart. In death, she dispenses stock tips. These days, LuLing is as cranky and demanding as ever — and showing signs of dementia. There’s plenty of rich material to be mined here — about deteriorating identity and chaotic family dynamics — but Tan only scratches the surface, ultimately drawing a bland smiley face. Not only does Ruth lure a content LuLing into a paradisal nursing home, she also discovers a hidden family fortune that could finance it. Those stock tips paid off.
Instead of actual scenes of mother and daughter grappling with mutual understanding — instead of, say, a journey into the characters’ psychology — we’re offered, as a surrogate, an adventure story. Snooping around her mother’s house, Ruth finds a manuscript written in Chinese. What follows is LuLing’s autobiography, a tale of provincial China rife with what would be called local color if Tan’s writing here weren’t so colorless, as when a supposedly breathtaken LuLing describes her first glimpse of Peking, comparing it to her hometown: ”The markets were larger and louder. The streets were filled with busier crowds.” The memoir recounts a disastrous wedding day, treacherous in-laws, World War II run-ins with Japanese soldiers, and the pilgrimage to America. Sound familiar? The secret of Precious Auntie’s identity is also revealed in one of the book’s few affecting passages — never mind that the secret itself is apparent by page 5. Filtered partly through self-help author Ruth, centered on the memoir of LuLing, and lousy with the hokiest sort of ”spirituality,” The Bonesetter’s Daughter flouts narrative convention to such an extent that the book seems less a novel than a bogus pop-psych life lesson.
The rich sources of vivid detail that Tan has evoked so successfully in previous novels are undermined here by hackneyed images and feeble descriptions. The book’s set in San Francisco, so Tan tosses in a postcard view of fog sweeping over the Golden Gate Bridge; to convey that Ruth’s been swept away by Art’s interest in her career, she writes that ”it pleased her to discuss such matters with him.” And the author’s symbolic efforts to link the Chinese and American halves of the novel result mainly in a mess of strained parallels and forced New Age symbols: Shortly after meeting Ruth, we’re told that she loses her voice for a week each August, synchronous with a yearly meteor shower. Nearly 200 pages later we read that the late Precious Auntie speaks to LuLing ”in the language of shooting stars,” a phrase used mere pages before in reference to an orgasm. The very point of the book seems to be the tapping of such unrefined sap — goo intended to suggest mystical connections — but it only leaves you feeling sticky. C
The Bonesetter’s Daughter
BY AMY TAN $25.95 PUTNAM