Published in 2001, The Bonesetter's daughter is Amy Tan's fourth novel. It was my third novel by this author. Having already read two novels by Amy Tam, I was pretty certain that I knew what I was getting myself into. What did I expect? Well, basically a story about an estranged (Chinese) mother and a (Chinese American) daughter trying to fix their relationship, all narrated from a strictly feminine point of view. Surely enough, the opening chapter titled ‘truth’ delivered what I was expecting. It was written from a perspective of LuLing Liu Young, mother to Luyi Young (her American name is Ruth) and a widow to Kai Jing and Edwin Young. The second chapter introduced the character of daughter Luyi/Ruth Young. The writer while introducing us with Ruth’s life, reveals to the reader that this introductory chapter is actually a beginning of long letter of sort (this long letter can also be seen as an autobiography, a retelling of her mother’s life in her own words) directed to her. LuLing Liu has written this letter in Chinese but Luyi/Ruth, not knowing to read the characters well, is not able to make much progress. When the novel opens, Luyi/Ruth has pretty much given up on the effort to read it any time soon and she feels very guilty about it.
This second chapter is written in third person view but it follows Ruth (Chinese name Luyi) and this is in fact the beginning to the first part of the book. Luyi/Ruth narrative takes a rather long time, the writer starts of by telling us about Ruth’s present work and private life. After becoming increasingly worried for her mother, Ruth (Liyu) moves on to examine her past, until it is time for us to move to the second part of the book and read her mother’s (i.e Lung Ling Liu’s) life story. Part two is basically the letter LuLing Liu gave to her daughter. It is also worth noting that part two only starts about half way through the book (page 153 in my edition) but it includes both the story of LuLing and her mother (the grandmother of Ruth). The third part of the book is not very long (it starts on page 299), it takes only a few chapters including the epilogue. The epilogue is quite short, lasting only two and a half pages (in my edition pages 351- 353). Those who have read The Kitchen’s God Wife will notice that the narrative structure and the plot are pretty much the same. We get three stories favouring the maternal side of the family (grandmother, mother, and daughter) through the eyes of two characters (mother and daughter).
Firstly, I’d like to say a few words about Ruth’s part of the story. At start I really liked her character. Even if the writing is from third person point of view, we are privy to Ruth’s thoughts, so it is like she is written her narrative voice. Ruth’s reflections on life, both on her personal and private life were very interesting. For instance, Ruth’s job is very interesting, being somewhat hard to define, we can call Ruth a book doctor, a ghost writer, a book collaborator or a very diligent editor (one that does writing as well) and I enjoyed learning more about this women that seems to handle it all. Ruth character and her present life really got my interest. What follows next is that Ruth relationship with Art (her partner) and Art’s daughters (he is divorced with children) is put under some strain by her troubled relationship with her mother. Suddenly, Ruth starts questioning everything.
However, by the time Ruth started noticing that something was wrong with her mother LuLing Liu, I became increasingly annoyed with Ruth. I mean how blind can you be? Ruth as a character stopped to hold my interest long before she started revealing her own life story. You see, Ruth seems to take forever to figure out her mother has dementia and even when it finally gets to her, Ruth waits until forever to do something about it. I kept wondering when will finally be the time for ‘her mother’s story’ because I couldn’t wait for Ruth’s story to end. Considering the fact that the narration follows Ruth most of the book, this was obviously a problem. Not long into the novel, Ruth gives into self-piety and at times it makes reading far somewhat tiresome. Perhaps it was meant to show how Ruth is evaluating her life, but if it was supposed to show us a bit of soul-searching, it wasn’t written that well. Besides feeling sorry for herself, Ruth starts to feel guilty all the time, seems to let everyone step over her, figures out it might not be the best thing to do, but does nothing about it. I kept getting more and more frustrated with her so despite the fact that I had initially liked this character, by the time Ruth travelled to her childhood and shared it with me as a reader, I wasn’t that interested.
Secondly, let me elaborate on the second part of the book for this is a part that I really liked. I think that the story about ‘the bonesetter’s daughter’ had tons of potential. I just loved the concept behind the story. Was the potential realized? Some of it was realized in the course of LuLing Liu’s narrative but not fully. At times, the narrative seemed hurried and the writing lacked beauty. At start the writing is fluent and LuLing speaks clearly ( as it is supposed to be a translation from Mandarin, hence no need for the mother to talk in broken English) but soon the sentences become too simple, leaving the narrative neither here nor there, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t critize Tan for making LuLing Liu speak in broken English in the first part ( but I wish she explained it better), but the writer should have been more consistent in the second part. Speaking of all that, why is LuLing Liu’s English so bad? Is it because it is her way of preserving her culture and not becoming assimilated into American culture? If that is the reason I understand, it is not uncommon practice among immigrants but we as readers need some kind of explanation, especially as Ruth seems to hind that her mother’s bad English might have something to do with one particular accident (why was that accident never explained fully)?
There were also some small things, details and inconsistences that bothered me. For example, have you noticed how Chinese husbands in Amy Tan’s novels are always villains or they die tragically early in the marriage? In addition, there is this family that leaves a lot of money as inheritance after it was noted several times that they don’t have any money left (first they lost it all and then when the communists arrive they are actually happy they don’t have anything because it would have been taken away from them- historical context and all that). Heroines always have to search for salvations by themselves- which would be commendable if it was more credibly described. Nevertheless, I enjoyed part two of the book a lot more than part one. I enjoyed reading about LuLing Liu’s growing up and her life up to coming to USA. The poetical way Chinese calligraphy was describes was an absolute treat. As someone who paints, I enjoyed those parts immensely. Moreover, reading about her mother was equally if not even more interesting. There were some great minor characters here, well portrayed even if they didn’t take too much space, for example sister Yu.
Still, while I was reading, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of déjà vu. Now, I don’t mind that Amy Tan’s writing clearly follows a pattern (a mother- daughter relationship gets better once the secrets are out), but this novel resembles The Kitchen’s God Wife so strongly it felt like plagiarism. I would have been tempted to call it plagiarism, if it wasn’t written by the same author. The pattern itself is not a problem, it is more that the story didn’t flow the way it was supposed to and the characters didn’t realize their potential. I don’t mind similar characters and repeated plots, as long as the novel takes on a life of its own and in my view this one failed to do that.
Many authors have a writing pattern, take Isabel Allende for example, her novels always feature a young intelligent heroine growing up and falling in love in a politically unstable Latin country. Now, that I think of it, there are quite a few similarities between Isabel Allende and Amy Tan. Both of them are immigrants living in USA, both of them write in English about events that often take place in foreign (non- English speaking) countries so there is always that aura of translation in their works. We feel like these authors are translating their culture to us and this add another dimension to their ‘magic realism’. With Allende, my enthusiasm died a little after I had read several of her novels, and while it might have been because of the ‘pattern’, I don’t recall ever being bored, and I was definitely bored, at least at times, while I was reading this novel.
On overall, I think this novel is too long and could benefit from either being 150 pages shorter or having certain parts rewritten. The first part of the book in particular seemed to drag on. There are a lot of irrelevant episodes that could have been left out and nobody would miss them so much. Some parts of the narrative seemed to drag forever, while some important events were completely ignored and only mentioned in passing. There were events and characters I wanted to know more about (a bit more about Ruth’s father, please, he is hardly mentioned) but the author just breezed over them. In contrast, there were things that were repeated over and over again. For most part, the writing in this one felt rushed and uneven. It wasn’t polished at all. There is only one truly beautiful passage and that is when first husband of LuLing Liu courts her by telling her a story about different levels of beauty in art. That philosophical conversation that revealed they were in love without even mentioning the word love, well that episode was extremely romantic.
Do you know that feeling when you’re reading a book and you can sense everything that is going to happen? This novel in particular seems to promise a lot of secrets but you can honestly figure it all out in the very first chapter. At least I could, maybe because I read two of Tan’s other novels prior to this so I’m not excluding the possibility that to some reader this book will truly be filled with secrets to unravel. But to me, this novel felt repetitive. At times, neither the myth nor the magic realism manages to salvage it for me. I enjoyed reading about Chinese’s folklore, but somehow even that felt like something I read before (perhaps in other Amy Tan’s books). Another thing I didn’t like was the ending. I thought it was unrealistic, inconsistent with the portrayal of characters and naïve.
Had it been the first book by Amy Tam that I have read, I’m sure that I would have had enjoyed it more, this way it felt a bit slow and repetitive. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I’ve read it. Told from a feminine point of review, this maternal family saga does have its perks. I enjoyed some parts of this book more than others, but on overall I did like it. Some of its characters are truly memorable and some of its passages quite beautiful. As I already said, I particularly liked the description of Chinese calligraphy and the philosophy behind it. I think it is something that any lover of art might enjoy. To sum up, this is a lovely maternal family saga.