Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan

All right, so I know I'm going outside my usual bailiwick here and reading a book that's sort of historical but has nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. It's very much set in the real world and dealing with the real-world problems that the characters of Ruth Young and her mother, LuLing have to deal with. And yet, despite it being not my usual pulpy fare I really enjoyed this book. What initially motivated me to pick up this book, aside from it being in the dollar-bargain bin at the used book store, was the fact that I had read another Amy Tan novel, The Joy Luck Club. Again, The Joy Luck Club deals with rather mundane, and sometimes extraordinary, problems and how mothers and daughters deal with those problems and make sense of their lives. Despite it not having any spaceships or marines in power armor I really enjoyed it, so I decided to give The Bonesetter's Daughter a read.

The plot of The Bonesetter's Daughter is divided into three sections, the first follows Ruth Young and the issues she has with a mother who is suffering from increasing memory problems. The first section also goes through the challenges Ruth faced growing up with her mother and helps explain why there is a barrier of communication between the two of them that goes beyond one growing up speaking Mandarin and the other growing up speaking English. In addition to her challenges with her mother, Ruth faces challenges with her long-time boyfriend Art and his two daughters and feels that an emotional wedge has been growing between them. All this finally leads up to Ruth deciding to get her mother's memoirs translated so that she can better understand her mother's past. I felt like this plot was very applicable to people of my generation (Generation Y/ the Millennials is what we're being called right now, by the by) although this book felt like it was written very much for members of previous generations. The book tackles the issues of dealing with aging parents with memory problems such as Alzheimer's, a growing concern considering our increased longevity and graying population, as well as the challenges of finding yourself unfulfilled as an adult. Although the Millenials are still entering adulthood and trying to find their place in the world, the advice of previous generations and trying to learn from those mistakes is always a valuable lesson.

The second portion of the book involved LuLing's memoirs of her life growing up in China, and the challenges she faced including World War II and the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. Obviously these challenges are much greater than the day-to-day challenges that many of us with the luxury to be reading this today face. I generally don't have to worry each morning if a nearby army is going to accuse me of spying and then kill me. However there is a strong nobility in how LuLing tackles the challenges placed before her and her eventual arrival in the United States. I actually enjoyed this part the most because it gave me a window into life in China in the early twentieth century, an area I am sadly lacking in all but the most general history knowledge. Even if it's historical fiction, it gives me an insight into the lives of people that I know very little about and the day-to-day challenges that they faced. I found it both very informative and enjoyable.

The final part of the novel focuses on Ruth and LuLing's reconciliation after Ruth finally reads her mother's memoirs, and how that manages to give Ruth the strength to put her life back together. While I was glad that everyone got a happy ending, I was a little frustrated because I felt like it was all tied up far too neatly into a pretty bow. The reason I say this is that this book was grounded in real life and the real life challenges that people face. Very often in real life we don't get everything tied up neatly before the end and everything works out okay for everyone. Real life is messy and chaotic and you'll never know for sure how things are going to end up going. Obviously it's a work of fiction and Tan's allowed to finish her book however she wants, and I frankly prefer happy endings myself, but it brought me out of the realm of "this could be someone's life" into "ah, okay, this is a work of fiction". Otherwise it's a really good book.

If you're looking for something different and are interested in Chinese culture then I'd definitely recommend both this and The Joy Luck Club. Both books have very similar themes but I found them very enjoyable and meaningful in their own ways. Even if there weren't any space ships.

- Kalpar  

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