Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: ??? *Resists urge to write Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a totally different culture* 

Could be enjoyed by: People who are interested in the experiences of first generation immigrants.

Publication date: 22nd March 1989

I’m going to let you in to a little secret here. Usually, I start my book reviews by assessing what emotions the novel has stirred up in me and allow them to set the tone for the review. Was it a super exciting story? If so, my review will have lots of exclamation marks and short, punchy sentences. Was it deeply moving? I’ll crack out longer paragraphs, throw in some half remembered A-Level psychology and feature the word “ohhhhh” a lot. But when I think of The Joy Luck Club I just think…meh.

So this probably won’t be a very good review (you’ve been warned).

I really wanted to like this book but I felt like I failed to miss the point. And upon reading the Wikipedia page for it, it seems that I absolutely had. You see, the novel features seven different characters – three mothers, three of their respective daughters plus one daughter whose mother has just died. The mothers are all part of the Joy Luck Club (a mahjong playing group) and are all Chinese immigrants, whilst their daughters are all Chinese-American. The book reads like a series of short stories from each of the characters. Occasionally these stories overlap but they’re often stand-alone vignettes. 

Apparently, the book is structured into four sections and the stories are themed for each as an allegory for the way that mahjong is played (?) Well, that went straight over my head. As far as I could see, the characters were picked at random to tell a story about their life. There seemed to be hardly any narrative thread holding it together. I immediately forgot who was related to who and couldn’t find the family tree explaining the genealogy using the ebook version. There was very little in the way of introducing the characters so in my head they became interchangeable – the “mothers” and the “daughters”. 

I have to say, some of the writing about what I’m going to call “old China” i.e. the lives that the mothers had before moving to America was really beautiful and felt totally authentic. I could have got completely lost in the stories if they’d perhaps been expanded to a longer form or if the book was just a collection of the experiences of those three characters. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with the stories of the younger generation, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The main problem for me was that the characters – all of them – were horrible. The mothers and daughters didn’t get on. The daughters were petty and bitchy to each other. The mothers were petty and bitchy to everyone. The men were either nasty or useless. I would have loved to see at least one family work it out but there was such a disconnect between them all that it wasn’t to be 😢.

I thought this was a real shame. I loved the stories set in China but with such confusing, similar characters, a cast of horrible adults and no redemptive arc (actually that’s not true – one of the daughters ends up connecting with her extended Chinese family but we don’t get to find out how that plays out) I found The Joy Luck Club to be totally underwhelming.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

One word: meh. Some parts were great, some parts were dull /horrible /annoying.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #5 Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

  1. I hate it when I can’t keep the characters in a novel straight, it makes me feel like I’m not reading it right. It’s understandable sometimes when the author has a lot of major characters whose stories she/he wants to cover, but when the characters blend in with each other and lack memorable qualities that’s never a good sign. My mom has an old copy of this book sitting on her shelf, but I’ve never read it. Great review, I might eventually read it for myself just to see what the hype is about; maybe if I finish it I’ll tell you how I feel about it. 🙂

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  2. Ach pity this was so meh (loved your opening paragraph though- I so relate to doing all those things- except the A Level psychology 😉 ) Ah that would all go over my head too- so it’s good to know. But it’s a pity there wasn’t enough of a thread to hold them all together (not related, but Homegoing does something similar with individual stories, but they’re all very much connected and you can see the thread connecting them). And shame that the younger generation weren’t enjoyable to read and that all the characters were so unpleasant!! I hate when you read stories like this where *no one* has a functioning family- sure every family has its problems, but even in among the dysfunctional families, there’s usually one to root for! Anyway, great review!

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I mean if you’re going to have multiple POVs you need really well defined characters but I couldn’t keep up with who was who. And yeah, I hate reading about horrid characters with no redeeming features…then when there’s seven of them….

      It’s a shame because the bits set in the 1920’s (ish) were really fascinating. It would have been better as a collection of short stories.

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