Tan’s fourth novel (and first in six years) wisely returns to the theme of mothers and daughters simultaneously estranged and bonded, a subject she treated so memorably in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife.
Appropriately enough, there are two subtly interconnected stories here. The first is that of Chinese-American “ghost writer” (specializing in “inspirational and self-improvement books”) Ruth Young, a workaholic in her mid-40s who’s living with a divorced Wasp and his two adolescent daughters while dealing as best she can with her frail, elderly mother LuLing, whose imperfect assimilation into American culture is becoming exacerbated by encroaching Alzheimer’s. The story within it is LuLing’s written memoir of her childhood in a village near Peking; orphanhood, marriage, and bereavement under Japanese invasion during WWII before she finally reinvented herself and emigrated to San Francisco; and especially her complex relationship with her “Precious Auntie,” a victim of patriarchal oppression whose hold on LuLing’s mind and heart long outlasts her death, and who proves to have been much more than the “nursemaid” who raised her. LuLing’s frustrated efforts to learn the (occluded) truth about her origins is ingeniously linked to the archaeological searches that result in the discovery of “Peking Man”—a discovery later echoed by both Ruth’s and LuLing’s confrontations with confused and lost identities. The novel builds slowly, and a few sequences (including an overextended account of a visit to an assisted-living facility) seem inexplicably disproportionate. But the elaborate preparation pays generous dividends in the stunning final 50 or so pages: a beautifully modulated amalgam of grief, pride, resentment, and resignation—as Ruth accepts the consequences of knowing “She was her mother’s child and mother to the child her mother had become.”
Tan strikes gold once again.