Even though they are drawn inside a world rarely seen in American literature (San Francisco's Chinatown and mainland China), "The Joy Luck Club" mothers and daughters' battle is as fine a battle as any World War II epic. It is much more subtle, of course. Words, looks, superstitions rather than howitzers. But the fray can be just as devastating.
The frail, brittle Chinese mothers in their padded jackets, their hand-knit sweaters, carrying their twice-used Macy's bags uphill against the wind, have a secret to which all mothers are privy. They have the power to affect their daughter's lives with a word or simple look that cuts clean like a knife. (Their matriarchal power is so strong it even seems to carve up and out of the pages and whittle the guilt of any reader who's ever questioned his or her own mother)."A girl is like a young tree," one mother says. "You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. . . . If you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing in any direction. . . ."
With a marvelous mixture of self-denial, resignation, a belief in mythic magpies who can drink others' tears to feed their own joy, and in a dogged determination to hold to ancestral ways, these four mothers gradually find the way to the hearts of their unmanageable offspring. But they must wait. There is a time when the daughters will be ready to hear them, when they've met with hardships they never dreamed possible - death, divorce, disillusionment.
The four daughters, Jing-mei "June" Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong (named after Waverly Place, a street in San Francisco) and Lena St. Clair, don't believe in the sacrificial, ironed-flat, non-aggressive position of their four mothers. They are in America and they believe in The Dream. They can be bigger than Chinese superstition, more stylish than the bright, homemade lemon yellow and pink sweaters that are an embarrassment at public school, more rational than their mothers who wear dark, knowing looks when they suspect a thing before it happens.
And they look askance at their mothers' membership in the Joy Luck Club, where they go to eat dyansin foods for good fortune, play mah jongg and invest in stocks. But the daughters don't understand the larger purpose. They've never heard of their mothers' questions. "What is worse? To sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness. . . ? We feast, play games, lose and win, we tell the best stories. And each week, we hope to be lucky. That hope is our only joy."
These mothers are afraid for their babies. They've seen what can happen in war and famine and even in prosperity. They believe in signs and omens. No crabs with broken legs for them. No crabs who have died before they are cooked. A bad sign.
"I wanted my children to have the best," says Lindo Jong, the mother of a chess-playing prodigy. "American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?"
She's not blind to the benefits: If someone is born poor in America, it's not an unbearable shame; if someone needs justice done, "You don't have to sit like Buddha under a tree letting pigeons drop their dirty business on your head."
But she senses her failure to teach her daughter about Chinese character: how to "listen to your mother's mind, how not to show your own thoughts, why easy things are not worth pursuing, how to know your own worth and polish it, and why Chinese thinking is best."
Through a gradual sharing of old-country stories by the four mothers, Amy Tan closes the gap of misunderstanding between them. One mother, not wanting to watch her baby girls die as she falters while carrying them away from the invading Japanese, leaves them by the side of the road with a note and money pinned to their clothes. Another mother gives birth to a child with nothing left in his head that never closed fully in the womb. Another becomes a widow and is tricked into becoming a third wife to a rich merchant, thus a concubine with no privileges. For disgracing her widowhood, she is shunned by her family, loses her right to her own children and is coerced into giving her newborn son to the barren second wife.
These stories have been hidden from the daughters before, almost like the mothers were standing in the shadows, waiting for the time when the daughters would know enough of life to hear their stories with compassion.
"The Joy Luck Club" is like a crystal orb where mothers and daughters can gaze at each other with magnified eyes, where the easy assumptions are turned upside down. It's a collection of uniquely Chinese stories, yet uniquely American stories. Indeed, it's the same stories that have been told over and again, generation after generation, by women looking over their shoulders at the past and into their mirrors for their peach-blossom luck, their future children.