3.5 star

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Now I know this is one of the classics. In fact, I was offered the chance to read this in Grade 11, but I chose The Great Gatsby instead. This is one of the great novels by an Asian author back when it was rare to have that. I have always wanted to finish the rest of the “choices” that I would have had back in high school, and this is one of them!

The Joy Luck Club follows four families that immigrated from China over to America, all under different circumstances. These are all mothers with daughters, and the mothers meet together to play mahjong and chat and share their stories. This is really a tale of generational trauma, the sacrifices made by all the mothers for the chance of a better life in America. In contrast, their (American) daughters leading their American lives experience many of the same problems in a different context.

Overall I was hoping I would enjoy this book more. While the commentary is great and honestly very thought-provoking, the overall mood of the book was simply a bit too depressing for me. While thrillers and mysteries are of course also often sombre or macabre, they’re something I definitely expect. This book delivered much more of a hopeless feeling rather than perhaps the feeling of hope I was wanting. The inescapability of history repeating itself was sad to see, albeit with an element of truth.

Honestly, the characters were a bit confusing for me too, for whatever reason. I think with somewhat similar backstories, switching between the views of four sets of mothers and daughters and their histories was a bit disconcerting for me. I think I almost wished there was more focus on each story, rather than the broad perspective and selective stories we got from each pair. I think for me it would have been more impactful. But that being said, it may have just been me not being ready for a heavy(ish) book at the time.

I did enjoy the ending and the last chapter, and overall I would say it was a good book. Perhaps I slightly misunderstood what I was getting into, and that kind of threw my view of the book off. But for sure it’s a good tale, and as an Asian reading it, I definitely felt it in my core (and I wasn’t expecting that!). A lot of its value was in the way it spoke to me and I feel even if you don’t relate personally, the story really is touching and real. I would recommend everyone to read this classic!

Overall Recommendations

The Joy Luck Club is an absolute classic revolving around the stories of four families who meet over mahjong. Each mother at the table immigrated over from China to America under different circumstances. The story follows mainly their American daughters and the stories that they share between them. Times were hard in the past, yet in the present they were not so different. A story about generational trauma and the unintentional repetition of history, this is a story that really tugs at the heartstrings, especially if you relate to the stories personally.


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