Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club


Amy Tan’s debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, is the first book by her that I have read. It is also the first book I’ve read with strong Chinese references, so I wasn’t quite sure as to what I should expect from this book.

The Joy Luck Club is the story of four Chinese women who have immigrated to the United States of America, under different circumstances, and all four are attempting to bring up their daughters in America – daughters who think like Americans, despite their mothers best efforts to instil in them their Chinese culture and heritage.

The San Francisco version of the “Joy Luck Club” was set up by the late Suyuan Woo (June Woo’s mother, whose death the reader learns of in the opening lines of the book), and it was a gathering of four women, with their husbands, as they played mah jong, and invested the “winnings” in the stock markets . Suayan Woo had started the same back in China, pre-immigration, during the time of the Japanese invasion, when hope was scarce, and joy minimal.

Each week, we would forget past wrongs done to us. We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck.

While the stories of the daughters were typically American, with marital problems, single motherhoods, identity crises, and struggling between being American, with a Chinese exterior, the stories of the mothers were far more interesting (to me). Be it the escape from China during the war, to leaving babies on the road, with gold on the side, so that someone with a good heart could give the babies a good home. One of the mothers was forced to marry someone who was very rich, and everyone considered her to be lucky. Desperate not to let her family down, she lived up to the expectations, until, she managed to orchestrate an escape, with her new family’s blessings. There are stories on losing children, of losing faith, and, being the fourth wife to a rich man, after the first husband had passed away… and how, being the fifth is better than being the fourth!

It was an interesting witty insight into a historical war-ridden China, but, I found that the daughters had very stereotypical characters, and nothing made them stand out. They were selfish, self-obsessed, and at times, it came across as though they were almost ashamed of their Chinese heritage – something one of the mothers pondered on as well. There was jealousy, rebellion and pettiness, that I found both, crass and cringeworthy. But, it was all very superficial as well, and I found that I couldn’t care less about them – even if I tried. The writing, all in all, was good, and flowed naturally. It was funny, in pieces, and poignant in places. It was bleak, at times, but not bordering on complete despondence, thereby keeping the hyperbolism to the minimal – something I appreciated, for in books like these, occasionally, I find that the author gets carried away.

Have you read this book? Or, anything else by Amy Tan? What do you think of it, and would you recommend any of her other books?

Rating: 3.5

31 Responses to “Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club”

  1. I have read everything written by Amy Tan – I love her books. I think some of the things you found negative (the children being ashamed of their culture for example) were meant to be there and lead to interesting discussions about identity.

    I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy it, and I think you’ll find similar problems with all her books, so if you don’t like this one I’d recommend avoiding all of them.

    • Sorry if it came across as that, but, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, specially because it was an insight into China as I’ve never seen before. I just found the characters of the four daughters slightly stereotypical and bland. The stories of the mothers had me gripped, and in retrospect, I wish the book had focused more on their stories….

  2. 3 mee

    I have also read everything by Amy Tan’s. The main theme of her books is always culture clash between mother and daughter generation, which I can totally relate to — and that’s why I loved them. I’d say that I probably liked Joy Luck Club the least though, so you might like her other books more as well. My favorite is The Kitchen God’s Wife and it definitely has more plot set in China (it’s Tan’s mother’s semi-biography according to her).

    • Thanks for the info. Will try finding a copy of that, sometime soon, lest it slip the radar.

      Is interesting to hear you liked the book the least, for, I thought it was one of her most popular books. Reckon you do have to make an allowance for it being her first, though…

  3. This is the only Amy Tan book I’ve read, which I studied in Grade 12 English. A lot of the cultural aspects resonated with me, as my family migrated to Australia when I was 1. Maybe a result of having studied it, I found that it’s extremely thought-provoking and there’s a lot to critically analyse in it, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable. Stupid high school English ruining books for me!

    • Stupid high school english lit is right…. my English teacher at high school was so terrible, that I genuinely thought I was better read than she was… one of my friends actually had to ask her what her college degree was in, or, had she even gone to college!

      It’s a thought-provoking book, and yup, I also agree on there being a lot to analyse in it, specially the relationship between the mothers and daughters, and the influences on immigrants. However, it’s not a book I’m going to want to re-read in a rush (or at all – don’t know about that, though), and for me, that’s the defining point of a book.

  4. I actually read this book in 12th grade (which was 1997). I read this book and a few others for a paper that I was writing for my AP English class. I also watched the movie. It made me cry back then but I haven’t read it in a while.

    • I’d never even heard of this book in school. Our Eng Lit was limited to Shakespeare, an anthology of stories and poems, and Dickens. I would’ve quite liked to read books like this back then… oh well!

      Is the movie worth watching then? I’m half-wondering if I should check it out…

      • I loved the film – but then I loved the book, so not sure if that is a good recommendation!

        You should watch it just for the shots of China – beautiful! I had been to the region where it was filmed (Guilin) so it was special to me for that reason too. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

      • It’s a good film. I liked it better than the book and have seen it more than once.

  5. I read “The Kitchen God’s Wife” by Amy Tan and liked it, mind you that was almost 20 years ago! It must not have made a huge impression on me because I still have The Joy LUck club after almost as many years, AND The Bone Setter daughter and I have not read either one of them. Huh.

    • Oh! Okay! Hmm, not so sure about The Kitchen God’s Wife now, but, reckon I should try it. The Joy Luck Club didn’t make a great impression on me, either, but, I did enjoy it enough to want to try more of Amy Tan’s works, to see what they’re like.

  6. I read The Joy Luck Club and wasn’t particularly impressed (especially as I had heard that it was her best/most popular) but I read The Kitchen God’s Wife and really enjoyed that; I would definitely read more Amy Tan books.

    • Yeah, I thought the same… it’s practically the first book people talk about when Amy Tan’s name comes up, so, that was slightly disappointing. I’m going to try giving The Kitchen God’s Wife a shot, before I make up my mind about her.

      Also, Jackie mentioned The Bonesetter’s Daughter in her Favorite Books post, so I might have to give that a lash as well. So yeah, I can see more Amy Tan popping up on here.

  7. 15 Pam

    I’ve never read any Amy Tan, but have always hear that this is a *must read* book. Thanks for the insightful review – it’s nice to have afresh take on a book that you so often hear ‘read read read’ about without being told why.

    • You’re right about that. It is a very interesting book, no doubt, so maybe you should seek it out.. or, take the advice on the comments, and seek out The Kitchen God’s Wife instead, and see how you find that. I’ve never actually heard of that one, to be perfectly honest…

  8. I read it back in the early 90’s so my memory’s fuzzy on some things. If I properly recall my interpretation at the time, the daughters were trying to fit in with western society. They felt their mothers and cultural ways old fashioned and not American. But at the same time they were conflicted because they didn’t want to totally cast aside their heritage or their parents’ values.

    It wasn’t great, but I liked it well enough.

    • Yep, that’s the gist of it. Think they were more curious to seek out there Chinese values towards the latter stages of the book, whereas initially, they were just embarrassed/ashamed of their parents, and slightly rebellious (almost for the sake of being so).

      Your last sentence fits my opinion of the book pretty well.

  9. I’ve read 3 or 4 of Tan’s novels (but not The Joy Luck Club) and The Kitchen God’s Wife is definitely my favorite. It’s been about ten years, so I can’t really give any specifics. The Joy Luck Club is on many of the high school reading lists here, and I would like to read it one day.

    • Thanks JoAnn, I’ll be looking out for it. I’m amazed that everyone on here has recommended The Kitchen God’s Wife, but I’ve never heard of the book ’til now!

      I’m curious to see what you think of The Joy Luck Club.

  10. I’ve no t read any of Amy Tan – I keep meaning to.

  11. I really enjoyed The Joy Luck Club when i read it as a teen. I don’t recall much about it, but I liked it. I also liked The Kitchen God’s Wife and I read The Bonesetter’s Daughter and it did nothing for me. That’s when I moved on to a different author.

    Your complaints are interesting as I don’t recall the details about the daughters at all. I’d love to reread it and figure out what I think now!

    • I think The Kitchen God’s Wife would be the next Tan I’ll be looking for. I’m quite surprised by how many of you guys are recommending it.

      I’d be looking forward to reading your re-read’s review, if you get down to it. Loved the Catcher In The Rye one – found it incredibly thought-provoking, so…

  12. I really liked this when I read it, as I did the other Amy Tan books I’ve read – I agree that you’ll find the same themes in her other books so you should probably avoid them… If you’re interested in getting an insight into Chinese women, read The Good Women of China by Xinran – it’s non-fiction by a Chinese journalist and I thought it was fascinating.

    • Thanks Joanna. I’ve not heard of that, but I’ll definitely try reading it. I haven’t read any Chinese lit (barring The Joy Luck Club), and I do love reading about other cultures and countries.

      Thank you, also, for commenting for the first time.

    • Wild Swans by Jung Chang is another great insight into the lives of woman in China and the Cultural Revolution.

  13. Such an insightful review :) I watched the film adaptation of this book way back when I was only a kid. It was one of my older brother’s favorites. I still remember the scene where in one of the female character goes out on a date with her future husband who sort of demands that they share the bill equally. I was like “What???”. I must be younger than twelve back then but I already understood that it’s something men should never do on a date. LOL!

    • lol, well, we’re in the 21st century now. Maybe it’s okay to split the bill? :)

      I haven’t seen the film adaptation yet, but, I reckon it might be an interesting watch – specially the “mothers” stories.

      • Yeah the mothers’ stories were interesting to watch :) Yes, you’re right about us being in the 21st century, hehe, and splitting bills does make sense on some occasions. But in the film, the scene was rather awkward. I think it was like the guy asked the girl out and after dinner all of a sudden he demands that they split the bill (something like that). If I remember it correctly, the girl was sort of surprised, LOL!

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