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If there's one thing we've learned from a lifetime spent consuming media about that magical mama-daughter bond, it's that mom + baby girl = friction. The fact that mothers and daughters annoy, argue with, and fight with each other but still manage to love each other pretty much more than anything in the world is well-documented.
Your favorite female family-centric movies (Terms of Endearment, Freaky Friday, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) underline this fact. So do the TV shows that show up on both moms' and daughters' Netflix queues, like Transparent or Jane The Virgin. (We're deliberately leaving Gilmore Girls off this list, because that mom-daughter relationship is way too buddy-buddy to be strictly accurate.)
So: what happens when the tinder of culture clash is laid on top of the already roaring bonfire of mom-daughter conflict?
You get something like The Joy Luck Club.
Meet Suyuan, An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying. These mothers all left China in the middle of the 20thb Century for America, where they all hoped they could forge a better life and raise happy families. They're all deeply informed by their cultural heritage: their views on child-rearing, education, marriage, and careers are all based in Chinese custom and philosophy.
These moms know they know what's best.
Now meet their daughters: Jing-mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose. These women have been raised in San Francisco and, while they all have a vested interest in their cultural heritage, they also have a vested interested in becoming "American." (We gave that word scare quotes because there are a zillion different ways of being American.) These daughters are interested in become empowered women of the 1980's, with the jobs, the power suits, and the Aqua-Netted hairstyles that entails.
These daughters know they know what's best.
In a twist that's actually no twist at all, these moms and daughters don't always see eye-to-eye. We get a glimpse into all of these women's worldviews and histories, moving between character perspectives in order to understand the complications that plague all family relationships and the special complications that arise from a generational clash and a cultural clash all at once.
Published in 1989, this novel pretty much single-handedly put Amy Tan on the map of American Lit. Not only was it a bestseller, but it nabbed the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award, and was made into a movie in 1993.
And when you read it, you'll know how deserved all these accolades were.
Tan manages to populate a book with unique, flawed character that are shaped both by the cultural history of China (the horrors of the Sino-Japanese war; the hierarchy of wives in polygamous marriages) and by the cultural history of 1980's San Francisco (the rise of women in business, the stigma of biracial marriage).
She's also managed to write a book that will almost guarantee that you call you mom, ask her about her life before you showed up, and tell her you love her. (Yep, even you sons out there.)
Because you probably don't know nearly enough about the lives of your parents BB. (That stands for "Before Babies.")
Sure, you can do the math; you understand they were young once. And chances are that you've probably seen a few orange-tinted old photos that hint at the fact that, behind your parents' hilariously retro fashions (nice short shorts, Dad) and bizarre hair decisions (is that a mullet, Mom?), your parents were...a little cool.
And you know a few well-worn family stories: Mom at age five flubbing her lines in the school play, or Dad's hijinks at his summer job when he was sixteen. You have a basic understanding of how their lives were because of the endless repetition of anecdotes that all start "When I was your age..."
But besides this stuff—besides the basic outline you've picked up from half-listened to dinner conversations—how much do you really know?
We know one thing for sure: after you've read The Joy Luck Club, you're going to want to find out some more.
This novel works in a few different ways to make you dog-ear your book and call your parental units. It starts, tragically enough, with the death of a mother. But more importantly than that, it delves deep into the lives of four mothers and their four daughters, outlining the ways in which these women are similar—the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, even when there's a cultural barrier between generations—and super, super different.
By focusing on the aspects of the mothers lives that they've kept hidden from their daughters, Joy Luck Club enhances the mystery of the older generation. (And not just the mysteries of "why all dad jokes are lame" or "why mothers never think you've eaten enough.")
You won't know about the nuances of the world in which your parents grew up until you ask them. You won't know about the dreams or wishes or grand plans they had before you came yowling into this world unless you take the time to find out. You won't know how much you have in common with the person your parents used to be without sitting down with them.
And you should ask questions and take the time. Because this book proves that, behind your parents' questionable ergonomic footwear choices and seeming inability to remember celebrity names correctly, there's a rich story about a fascinating individual.
The only film version of The Joy Luck Club.
Check out this clip of the women sitting around a mah jong table.
This is the scene where Rose meets her future husband’s family.
An interview with Amy Tan in which she talks about her family, among other topics.
Mothers and Daughters
Amy Tan and her own mother in 1989.
Tan and Her Husband
Amy Tan and her husband… wonder if that’s what Harold or Ted looks like?
An Interview With the Author
Interview with Amy Tan. She answers a variety of questions about her family, role models, being a writer, and more.
Tan’s Official Website
Amy Tan’s own website. This site includes a Q&A section as well as a biography, and a lot more.
A biography of Amy Tan on the Academy of Achievement’s website.