REVIEW: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

Format:  Audio CD, 10 disks
Genre:  General Fiction, Asian/Am Lit
ISBN:  1597770760
Published:  January 2006 (audio)
Setting:  San Francisco CA / China

Rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known. . . . In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LiuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headstrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion — all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother’s past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.

My Thoughts:

There are so many things about this book to love – the setting (China, in particular); the vast scope of the story; the deft way that the author ties together the present and the past; the commitment and love between LuLing and Ruth, LuLing and GaoLing, LuLing and Precious Auntie; how Tan’s writing style and word choices seem to exude the culture she is writing about, including a subtle but still noticeable shift in tone in section two (LuLing’s story).

I connected with the story immediately, and particularly with Ruth.  I related to her inability to feel confident, to believe that she actually had something to say, to think that anyone would be interested in her words.  I got how she allowed herself to “disappear” in her relationship, never seeming to require anything concrete or real from Art, not even sure he really loves her, yet continuing on in a sort of hazy mediocrity.  I understood her choice to do the work she did – behind the scenes, anonymous or very nearly so (even if, in the end, she tended to resent the lack of credit), and risk free, meaning any criticism of the work would be directed to the author of record, not her (a “ghostwriter,” but in reality the actual author of all the books she worked on).

Perhaps more than any of the above, I had a visceral and immediate connection to her relationship with her mother.  Their conflicted, competitive, critical and volatile relationship was as familiar to me as the back of my hand.  I was transported time and again back to my own experiences as a child, an adolescent, and a young woman as I read the arguments & struggles between Ruth &  LuLing.  I found LuLing controlling, irrational, hypercritical, and impervious to reason.  I felt the frustration that Ruth felt right along with her, and when time & again she allowed herself and her own desires to be eclipsed by her mother, I wanted to shake her out of her lethargy.

And then came Section 2.

Once again, I felt like shaking someone and screaming “Wake UP!”  But this time, it was LuLing herself.  As I progressed through this middle section, I began to understand LuLing in a completely different way, and while I still didn’t (and don’t) understand the necessity of incessantly criticizing and insulting one’s daughter, I did ultimately comprehend the enormous suffering that LuLing endured & overcame.  I understood how it shaped her and hurt her, how it gutted her and made her strong.  She was so much more than Ruth’s experiences, GaoLing’s interactions or Precious Auntie’s recollections.  It was clear that Ruth needed to know her mother’s history and understand where she came from in order to appreciate her strengths, weaknesses & eccentricities.  She needed to know those things to also heal herself, to recognize that despite herself she had a good partner, and to allow herself the luxury of committing fully to the relationship, loving with reserve, and being likewise loved in return.

Amy Tan weaves this exotic, timultuous, and ultimately cathartic story in such a way that it leaves you wanting more…to continue on with the story, to find out what happens next with the characters you’ve come to love.  That’s good writing…really good writing, and it’s worthy of a place on everyone’s bookshelf.

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