Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club has become a modern classic, and Tan draws from same wellspring for The Bonesetter's Daughter. Here again she weaves a tale with a familiar warp: women in early twentieth-century China, the deep differences between generations in immigrant families, and the heartbreakingly complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Dragon bones play as much a part as World War II in this novel split between the "then" of 1930s and 40s China and the "now" of 1990s San Francisco.
Ruth Young is a middle-aged Chinese-American ghostwriter of self-help books. Her relationship with the divorced father of two she lives with is stagnating, and her periodic bouts of speechlessness testify to an inability to communicate honestly with him and his daughters. Ruth's mother doesn't make life any easier -- reverse-psychology style of parenting, not to mention regular suicide threats, have left her daughter exhausted and uptight. It is the subtle onset of Alzheimer's in LuLing that initiates a transformation in Ruth's understanding of her mother.
While trying to deal with LuLing's increasingly erratic behavior, Ruth has her mother's calligraphed diary translated. In it, she discovers the significance of the ghosts of LuLing's past, especially that of Precious Auntie, the maimed and mute woman who raised LuLing in the village where the bones of Peking Man were discovered. The secrets of LuLing's life unfold in pained beauty as Ruth tries to put her own past in a perspective she can live with. From the consummate acts of murder and suicide to the attenuated small sins between mother and daughter, Tan lays bare the myriad ways we inflict pain on each other. She goes the necessary step farther, though, in illustrating the possibilities for healing even after wounds have become scars.
Tradition and defiance, legend and brute reality enrich The Bonesetter's Daughter much as they did The Joy Luck Club. Tan is at the top of her game here, and her ride on the bestseller fiction lists will attest to it. Apparently partly autobiographical, this novel will generate lively book group discussions. More importantly, it will gently nudge readers into reconsideration of their own filial relationships. A beautiful, beautiful book.