Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, follows the lives of four Chinese women and their four daughters. One of the mothers is dead, but her story is told through the memories of her daughter and her friends. The mothers immigrated to the United States as young women in the 1940s; the daughters were all born in the United States. The narrative consists of interwoven stories from the past and present, told from the point of view of each of the seven living main characters. The novel was immensely popular when it was published, attracting far more readers than one would expect for such a culturally specific story. The reason for the wide appeal of this novel is that it comprises an intersectionality of generation, gender, and culture that attracts a large number of readers who relate to one or more of these elements.
The female protagonists have overlapping cultural and gender interests, as well as divergent generational and cultural interests. The mothers have experienced the difficult experience of immigrating to a new country as adults, and having to adjust to everything that that entails. One of them comments that “(i)t’s hard to keep your Chinese face in America” (Tan 294). The daughters were all born in the United States, and have American cultural values tinged with Chinese traditions that they have been taught by their mothers. The mothers’ fear that the American influence on their daughters will cause estrangement between them. Jing-mei, daughter of the deceased Suyuan Woo, recognizes this when her mothers’ friends express disbelief that she feels unsure about how to describe her mother to her half-sisters in China. “In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America” (Tan 31). The difficulties that immigrants experience, and the alienation that they experience with their differently enculturated children, is a universal dilemma that is relatable to many readers.
Generational differences between the mothers and daughters are a strong theme in the book. The mothers impose expectations on their daughters that are based on their native culture, adding additional strain to the inevitable developmental stress between parent and child. When Lindo points out to her daughter, Rose, that the man she is dating is American, Rose snaps at her: “I’m American too…” (Tan 124). Jing-mei contemplates the life-long difficulty that she had communicating with her mother. “My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (Tan 27). Intergenerational tension is familiar to all parents, and adds relevance to the novel for many people.
The women in the novel have strong bonds, both between the mothers and daughters, and among the mothers. Suyuan, remembering the bonds she had with female friends in China, starts the Joy Luck Club after arriving in San Francisco. Jing-mei recalls Suyuan’s first encounter with the three friends that will become lifelong fixtures in her mother’s life, at an immigrant church service. “My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English” (Tan 6). The intersection of gender combined with cultural origin and tragedy create a tight friendship among the four women that lasts until Suyuan’s death.
Tan’s novel is attractive to a wide variety of readers because of the combination of universal themes that she incorporates into the work. It offers meaningful and identifiable characters to a large cross-section of readers.