Friday, 18 March 2016

The Joy Luck Club

“For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me. ” 
Rating: 6 stars out of 10

The Joy Luck Club is a series of vignettes (short and distinct episodes) centred around the relationships within several Asian American families. I read this last year as part of my aim to read more diversely. I have to say I was surprised at how old this book is. Despite it being nearly thirty years old, the themes raised still feels very modern and it remains relevant.

The main types of relationships focused on are between mother and daughter, husband and wife. My favourite aspect was the interspersal of Chinese culture such as expectations, traditions, symbolisms and opinions on topics like interracial relationships. I don't know anything about Chinese culture so getting that brief glimpse from the first and second generation immigrants was fascinating. It didn't assume any background knowledge either so it was easy to follow (and, obviously, these are just the opinions of imaginary characters). I think overall, the cultural tensions and conflicts that the characters faced were captured really well. When you consider the short space of writing for each vignette, the conflicts are well explained and don't come across as unclear, boring or patronising.

One thing that struck me was that just as interesting questions were coming from a vignette, it would end and a different one would begin. Maybe this was intentional. On one level, using the vignettes in this way reinforces the seemingly unordered and random nature of life in general. Life isn't perfectly and evenly packaged with a beginning, middle and end. On the other level, it made the connection with the characters feel almost pointless. I had just started to get into a character or conflict when it is cut short. You are effectively repeatedly dumped into a random, single chapter of a story. For some people, I can see the appeal but mostly I felt like I 'missed out'. Maybe I was looking for a happy ending, a sign that relationships between mothers and daughters can be improved. Or more likely, vignettes just aren't for me.

The audiobook was read by Amy Tan and this was an excellent decision. Some authors lack the ability to narrate well and in doing so, they damage their own story. Tan's narration was very good. You could hear and experience her emotion. Her voice is very soft as well. I listened to The Joy Luck Club in one go whilst I was making bread last year. If you have two hours of mindless activity planned and you want to read The Joy Luck Club then I'd suggest giving the audiobook a try.

For some reason, The Joy Luck Club just didn't wow me. If I was making bread again, I wouldn't listen to this. I'm not sure why I didn't like it because it has some great features, and I am kind of sad that I'm not raving about it. I think my main issue was that some of the vignettes were forgettable. The characters just didn't seem to be easily distinguishable and I couldn't tell you the name of a single character other than there was a baby, something to do with a dentist and a chess player. Some vignettes I cannot remember at all; others I might only remember what it was about or just how it ended. I agree that the best part of each vignette is the last third.

Overall, this book accurately reflects life. It's random and far too short. It's full of complex fundamental human relationships that can't be walked away from. You are dumped in the middle of conflicts without explanation or choice. It appears to strike a deep meaning and as soon as you think you have found it, it slips through your hand like smoke. If you can live with these things and find this quasi-existential by-product angst enjoyable then I can see why you'd like it and it deserves a cult following. Personally, it's not for me.

Book facts
Year published: 1989
Pages: 288
Publisher: Penguin


  1. I read this years ago when Amy Tan was the new star in the literary firmament.
    Remember very little about it so your review made me open up my mental book archieve.
    Impression: ladies playing a card game (mahjong)
    Impression: mother - daughter relationships ( probably brought me back to my own M-D thoughts)
    I starting to appreciate audio books much more. While reading 'classic' like Metamorphoses audio was perfect. 1. read summary of myth - 2. listen story while doing a 'baking bread' type of activity. I walked, cleaned the kitchen and empty the cat's litter box etc. The voices bring the gods and goddesses, wood-nymphs and river gods to life!

    1. Thanks for commenting Nancy :-) I'm glad you're enjoying your audiobooks, they can really bring the voices to life as you say!


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