The bestselling author reflects on family, reading, writing, and language in a memoir characterized by “free-form spontaneity.”
After Tan published her last novel (The Valley of Amazement, 2013, etc.), her editor suggested that she compile a volume drawn from some of the thousands of emails she sent him during the time she wrote the book. It would be “easy to pull together,” he said, as well as “compelling” and “insightful.” Fortunately, Tan rejected that idea, although she does include one chapter containing a selection of emails between them, some of which offer glimpses of her writing process. The rest of her uneven memoir consists of “a potluck of topics and tone”: chapters about her response to music, the idea of genius, emotions, her own personality as “unstoppable,” learning to read, and her family. Readers of Tan’s previous fiction and nonfiction will find a familiar character: her mother, a difficult, moody woman who had an indelible influence on the author. “The main problem, as I saw it growing up,” Tan reflects, “is that she was negative in her thinking. She saw falsity in people who were nice. She saw slights in how people treated her.” Bad thoughts festered in her mind until they emerged “in an explosive threat” that blighted Tan’s life. A psychiatrist who knew her mother marveled that Tan didn’t suffer “from a disabling psychiatric disorder as an adult.” But she admits that her childhood experiences made her “intolerant of emotional manipulation.” Tan is forthcoming about various illnesses, especially her treatment for seizures with a medication that left her feeling unusually happy. When a friend suggested she stop taking the mood-altering drug, she resisted: “Whatever the medication had done to my brain, I had become protective of my new sympathetic nervous system friend.” Tan’s candid revelations make much of the book entertaining, but the slight journal entries and short pieces she calls “quirks” read like filler, and many chapters would have benefited from further editing.
A composite portrait that should appeal to the author’s fans.