Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” dramatically chronicles the tortured, devoted relationship between LuLing Young and her daughter Ruth. Spanning the 20th century, the book raises intriguing issues about the nature of literacy, the complications of immigration and the unpredictable lessons of aging. Tan’s style is lively, witty, suspenseful and rich in historical detail.
Since Tan’s 1989 debut with the best-selling “The Joy Luck Club,” she has become a multimedia success, co-producing and co-writing the film based on that book. Subsequently, she has published two other novels, “The Kitchen God’s Wife” and “The Hundred Secret Senses,” as well as two children’s books, one of which is being adapted as a PBS series for young people. All four of Tan’s novels examine troubled rifts within Chinese American families.
“The Bonesetter’s Daughter” revisits fraught territory explored in “The Joy Luck Club"--family secrets, unasked questions, the suffocation of feudal marriage and the Japanese invasion of China. In the new novel, Tan once again identifies the American-born daughter as cultural mediator for her parent. She shows how, for those of us with immigrant mothers, the lines between obedience and betrayal, gratitude and guilt get inextricably tangled.
Ruth Young, who grows up translating for LuLing, works in San Francisco as a “book doctor,” ghost-writing such volumes as “The Cult of Envy,” “The Cult of Compassion,” “The Geography of the Soul,” “The Yin and Yang of Being Single,” “The Yin and Yang of Being Divorced.” “After fifteen years, she had nearly thirty-five books to her credit. . . . She had been in the business long enough to see the terms evolve from ‘chakras’ to ‘ch’i,’ ‘prana,’ ‘vital energy,’ ‘life force,’ ‘biomagnetic force’ ‘bioenergy fields,’ and finally back to ‘chakras.’ ”
Ruth’s ennui about work extends to home life with Art, her partner of nine years, and his two teenage daughters. Art, a linguist at the Center for Deafness, has begun to take her for granted and, in turn, her erotic interest in him has dwindled. She is irritated by his daughters’ lack of respect for LuLing. When we meet her, Ruth has been struck by her annual “mid-August muteness,” a condition that occurs every shooting star season. " . . . [S]he came to enjoy her respite from talk; for a whole week, she did not need to console clients, remind Art about social schedules, warn his daughters to be careful, or feel guilty for not calling her mother.”
Communication--through silence, body language, traditional calligraphy, sand painting, sign language, word processing, telephone conversations, furtively read diaries and flagrantly ignored family memoirs--is the novel’s central subject. And it is failed communication that causes Tan’s characters their profound, sometimes fatal problems: “But the way Ruth saw it, LuLing got into fights mainly because of her poor English. She didn’t understand others, or they didn’t understand her. Ruth used to feel she was the one who suffered because of that. The irony was, her mother was actually proud she had taught herself English, the choppy talk she had acquired in China and Hong Kong. And since immigrating to the United States fifty years before, she had not improved either her pronunciation or her vocabulary. Yet LuLing’s sister, GaoLing, had come to the States around the same time, and her English was nearly perfect.”
Ruth has always acclimated her mother to and protected her from American life. In addition to linguistic difficulties, LuLing is burdened by secrets about her own childhood ordeals. From the time Ruth is a first grader, LuLing is convinced that her daughter can channel advice from her long-dead mother, by writing with a chopstick in a sand tray. LuLing relies on these supernatural messages about everything from the dinner menu to stock market investments. The practical Ruth plays along to ease her mother’s inexplicably pervasive anxiety.
Now, in 1999, when Ruth is 46 and LuLing is 82, they face another communication problem, as Lu-Ling found to have Alzheimer’s disease. Ruth, racked with worry about her mother’s erratic behavior, moves back to the family apartment. Years before, LuLing had given Ruth her memoir and, finally, as she is losing her mother to dementia, Ruth gets it translated. This memoir--Part II of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter"--comprises almost half the novel.
The book-within-the-book is a transformative odyssey set in an operatic world of murder, romance, war and vengeful ghosts. It opens in the village of Immortal Heart, south of Peking. " . . . [N]early two thousand people lived there. It was crowded, packed from one edge of the valley to the other. We had a brick maker, a sack weaver and a dye mill. We had twenty-four market days, six temple fairs, and a primary school that GaoLing and I went to when we were not helping our family at home. We had all kinds of peddlers who went from house to house, selling fresh bean curd and steamed buns, twisted dough and colorful candies.”
The Lui clan, which has lived in Immortal Heart for six centuries, manufactures the finest of inksticks. Young LuLing helps the women make ink at home while the men sell it in Peking. “It yielded just the right color and hardness. An inkstick of ours could last ten years or more. It did not dry out and crumble, or grow soggy with moisture. And if the sticks were stored in the coolness of the root cellar, as ours were, they could last from one great period of history to another.”
The main figure in LuLing’s life is her mute nursemaid, Precious Auntie, a maimed woman trailing painful mysteries. Although LuLing is surrounded by various family anomalies, such as the fact that her sister is just five months younger than she, the girl flourishes under Precious Auntie’s tutelage, learning to read and create beautiful calligraphy. LuLing translates between her illiterate mother and her mute guardian. At 14, LuLing is betrothed to a man Precious Auntie vehemently opposes, and the situation results in unexpected tragedy.
Precious Auntie has left a memoir which reveals her to be Lu-Ling’s real mother. As the daughter of a respected bonesetter, Precious Auntie herself had become an accomplished healer. Traumatized by witnessing the deaths of her father and her lover 15 years before, Precious Auntie tried to commit suicide by drinking resin but succeeded only in losing her voice and half her face. Later that year, LuLing was born.
The distraught LuLing is now cast out by her “parents.” Eventually, after considerable adventure at the excavation site of Peking Man and hardship during the Japanese invasion of China, LuLing emigrates to the U.S. But LuLing’s bad luck haunts her: Her husband dies when Ruth is only 2 years old. Tan renders LuLing’s tragic journey as a vivid, fast-paced drama, deftly contextualized with historical detail.
After reading LuLing’s memoir, Ruth begins to understand parallels between her life and LuLing’s and to fill in large gaps of family history. She reconsiders the very definition of family, now that she has learned that LuLing’s beloved auntie is her mother and her sister GaoLing is really her cousin. Perhaps it’s now easier for Ruth to accept her life with Art and his children. Meanwhile, Art begins to appreciate Ruth in her absence. And LuLing’s Alzheimer’s disease worsens.
At this point, Tan veers into fairy tale. This very good novel could have been a brilliant one if not for these last 40 pages. Now one dream leads to another. The sentimental epilogue concludes with a mother-daughter detente and the renewal of Ruth’s literary ambitions, sending the book over the top into the land of talking mirrors and glass slippers.
Still, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” is a strong novel, filled with idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters, haunting images, historical complexity, significant contemporary themes and suspenseful mystery. Tan herself is a bonesetter, recognizing that just as bones make up the body’s frame, family (in fact and in legend) determines the frame of the self. She links the bone healing of Immortal Heart Village to the foiled excavation of Peking Man to the magic oracle bone that LuLing sells to escape China to the broken bones that LuLing and Ruth suffer in unconscious attempts to communicate. Thus Tan’s title becomes a provocative theme and resonant metaphor for her whole novel.