From the Publisher
“AS COMPELLING AS TAN’S FIRST BESTSELLER THE JOY LUCK CLUB. . . No one writes about mothers and daughters with more empathy than Amy Tan.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[AN] ABSORBING TALE OF THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOND . . . THIS BOOK SING[S] WITH EMOTION AND INSIGHT.”
“POIGNANT AND BITTERSWEET . . . A STORY OF SECRETS AND REVELATION, ESTRANGEMENT AND RECONCILIATION.”
–Rocky Mountain News
The Barnes & Noble Review
Amy Tan tills the same fertile ground that propelled The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife to the top of bestseller lists in her latest novel, by exploring the immigrant experience in America, the love and tensions that exist between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which our affections can be lost in translation. Tan is at the height of her storytelling powers in The Bonesetter's Daughter, conjuring up a powerful and tragic story of murder, betrayal, and survival, in which dragon bones, vengeful ghosts, and family curses are are among the forces her characters must contend with daily.
The novel weaves together two separate narratives: the story of LuLing, a young girl in 1930s China, and that of LuLing's daughter, Ruth, as a middle-aged woman in modern San Francisco. Ruth is a ghostwriter chafing under the weight of a stagnant relationship and coming to terms with the growing senility of her formidable mother. A widow for four decades, LuLing struggles to raise Ruth while battling the demons that chased her from her childhood in China to her new life in America. She longs for her beloved Precious Auntie, whose restless spirit wanders the world because her dead body was thrown off a cliff, not buried.
Ruth reads LuLing's diary of her early life at the Mouth of the Mountain, a hamlet outside of Peking, beginning with an account of LuLing's almost idyllic childhood as the daughter of a prosperous ink merchant and as the charge of the tender Precious Auntie. The unforgettable Precious Auntie, a beautiful and willful woman who learned to read and speak her mind, is the daughter of a renowned bonesetter. When her father and the man she is to marry are both killed, she tries to commit suicide by drinking molten ink. The suicide attempt fails, but her face is horribly disfigured and her voice ruined.
Precious Auntie becomes caregiver to the infant LuLing and instills her own defiance and strength in the little girl. In a house and society where betrayal is the norm, Precious Auntie teaches LuLing respect, decency, and honor. But when a catastrophic marriage is arranged for LuLing to the son of the man who destroyed Precious Auntie's life, Precious Auntie reveals a brutal family secret to LuLing and then kills herself. LuLing is orphaned and suffers the harsh experiences of World War II before making the long journey to America.
Back in 1990s San Francisco, the muteness of Precious Auntie is mirrored by Ruth's own periodic speechlessness, which stems from a traumatic incident in her childhood. To find happiness, she must address that pain and find her voice as a woman and as a writer. Ruth's uncovering of her family's secrets opens the door to understanding not only her mother's fears and superstitions but her own as well. Tan tenderly and masterfully excavates the emotions that lie between the proud, elderly Chinese woman and her Americanized daughter, and it is in these episodes that her writing is most beautiful. It is also where the healing of LuLing and Ruth begins. (Dylan Foley)
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
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A rich, fascinating read.
Winner of Best Audio Book For 2001.
New York Times Book Review
Tan's splendid new novels abounds not only with tellers and listeners, but with people who truly understands stories....
The Washington Post-Book World
In the end, it's the novel's depth of feeling that resonates and lingers. Tan writes with real soul.
Finding emotional healing in the face of disease has launched a thousand Movies of the Week, but in the hands of a writer as generous as Tan, it's a subject that still resonates as an antidote to grief.
Christian Science Monitor
Splendid . . . [W]hat marvelous characters she gives us . . . Tan's decision to tie up all the loose ends . . . does not mar the real ending, for which Tan's superb storytelling has amply prepared us.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tan's empathetic insight into the complex relationship of Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters is again displayed in her latest extraordinary, multi-layered tale. Now suffering from Alzheimer's, Lu Ling's references to the past are confusing and contradictory particularly her desperate attempts to communicate with her deceased Precious Auntie, who was her nursemaid and Ruth worries about her mother's health. But when Ruth translates Lu Ling's lengthy journal, she learns that her mother was once a strong-willed, courageous girl who overcame a background of family secrets and lies, persevered despite romantic heartbreak and survived tremendous hardships and suffering in war-torn China. Tan deftly handles narrative duties as Ruth, the exasperated but loving daughter, while Chen is perfect as the quick-speaking, accented Lu Ling. Lu Ling's first-person diary is particularly suited to audio: we hear the young girl directly reveal her secret hopes and dreams, and watch her grow from a naive innocent to a sharp-eyed survivor. Simultaneous release with the Putnam hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 4). (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
To quote KLIATT's July 2001 review of the New Millennium audiobook edition: Tan's exquisite novel of the relationships between mothers and daughters, the past and the present, and the emotional restraints that bind our lives in ways we barely comprehend is stunning. Ruth is a successful ghostwriter of self-help books, but she feels constrained by the relationship with the man she's lived with for years and by her relationship with her mother, LuLing, who has had bouts of suicidal depression and now seems to be facing Altzheimer's. LuLing came to America from China as a young woman, and despite decades of life in California, she speaks English poorly. Visiting her is difficult for Ruth, but when her mother becomes dangerously forgetful, Ruth goes to live with her. Spending this time with LuLing brings back memories of her own childhood and her mother's childhood memories of Precious Auntie, LuLing's nanny. When Ruth runs across a sheaf of papers—her mother's story—written in Chinese, she finds a translator, and thus LuLing's story alternates with Ruth's; the themes of ink, ghosts, and bones (Precious Auntie was the daughter of a renowned healer, or bonesetter) are woven throughout the stories of three generations of women. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Ballantine, 368p., Moxley
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 thestunning final 50 or so pages: abeautifully modulated amalgam of grief, pride, resentment, and resignationas 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.
Read an Excerpt
These are the things I know are true:
My name is LuLing Liu Young. The names of my husbands were
Pan Kai Jing and Edwin Young, both of them dead and our secrets gone with them. My daughter is Ruth Luyi Young. She was born in a
Water Dragon Year and I in a Fire Dragon Year. So we are the same but for opposite reasons.
I know all this, yet there is one name I cannot remember. It is there in the oldest layer of my memory, and I cannot dig it out. A
hundred times I have gone over that morning when Precious Auntie wrote it down. I was only six then, but very smart. I could count. I
could read. I had a memory for everything, and here is my memory of that winter morning.
I was sleepy, still lying on the brick k'ang bed I shared with Precious
Auntie. The flue to our little room was furthest from the stove in the common room, and the bricks beneath me had long turned cold. I felt my shoulder being shaken. When I opened my eyes, Precious
Auntie began to write on a scrap of paper, then showed me what she had written. "I can't see," I complained. "It's too dark."
She huffed, set the paper on the low cupboard, and motioned that
I should get up. She lighted the teapot brazier, and tied a scarf over her nose and mouth when it started to smoke. She poured face-washing water into the teapot's chamber, and when it was cooked, she started our day. She scrubbed my face and ears. She parted my hair and combed my bangs. She wet down any strands that stuck out like spider legs. Then she gathered the long part of my hair into two bundles and braided them. She banded the top with red ribbon, the bottom with green. I wagged my head so that my braids swung like the happy ears of palace dogs. And Precious Auntie sniffed the air as if she, too, were a dog wondering, What's that good smell? That sniff was how she said my nickname, Doggie. That was how she talked.
She had no voice, just gasps and wheezes, the snorts of a ragged wind. She told me things with grimaces and groans, dancing eyebrows and darting eyes. She wrote about the world on my carry-around chalkboard. She also made pictures with her blackened hands. Hand-talk, face-talk, and chalk-talk were the languages I
grew up with, soundless and strong.
As she wound her hair tight against her skull, I played with her box of treasures. I took out a pretty comb, ivory with a rooster carved at each end. Precious Auntie was born a Rooster. "You wear this," I demanded, holding it up. "Pretty." I was still young enough to believe that beauty came from things, and I wanted Mother to favor her more. But Precious Auntie shook her head. She pulled off her scarf and pointed to her face and bunched her brows. What use do I have for prettiness? she was saying.
Her bangs fell to her eyebrows like mine. The rest of her hair was bound into a knot and stabbed together with a silver prong. She had a sweet-peach forehead, wide-set eyes, full cheeks tapering to a small plump nose. That was the top of her face. Then there was the bottom.
She wiggled her blackened fingertips like hungry flames. See what the fire did.
I didn't think she was ugly, not in the way others in our family did. "Ai-ya, seeing her, even a demon would leap out of his skin," I
once heard Mother remark. When I was small, I liked to trace my fingers around Precious Auntie 's mouth. It was a puzzle. Half was bumpy, half was smooth and melted closed. The inside of her right cheek was stiff as leather, the left was moist and soft. Where the gums had burned, the teeth had fallen out. And her tongue was like a parched root. She could not taste the pleasures of life: salty and bitter,
sour and sharp, spicy, sweet, and fat.
No one else understood Precious Auntie 's kind of talk, so I had to say aloud what she meant. Not everything, though, not our secret stories. She often told me about her father, the Famous Bonesetter from the Mouth of the Mountain, about the cave where they found the dragon bones, how the bones were divine and could cure any pain, except a grieving heart. "Tell me again," I said that morning,
wishing for a story about how she burned her face and became my nursemaid.
I was a fire-eater, she said with her hands and eyes. Hundreds of people came to see me in the market square. Into the burning pot of my mouth I dropped raw pork, added chilis and bean paste, stirred this up,
then offered the morsels to people to taste. If they said, "Delicious!" I
opened my mouth as a purse to catch their copper coins. One day, however,
I ate the fire, and the fire came back, and it ate me. After that, I decided not to be a cook-pot anymore, so I became your nursemaid instead.
I laughed and clapped my hands, liking this made-up story best.
The day before, she told me she had stared at an unlucky star falling out of the sky and then it dropped into her open mouth and burned her face. The day before that, she said she had eaten what she thought was a spicy Hunan dish only to find that it was the coals used for cooking.
No more stories, Precious Auntie now told me, her hands talking fast. It's almost time for breakfast, and we must pray while we're still hungry. She retrieved the scrap of paper from the cupboard, folded it in half, and tucked it into the lining of her shoe. We put on our padded winter clothes and walked into the cold corridor. The air smelled of coal fires in other wings of the compound. I saw Old
Cook pumping his arm to turn the crank over the well. I heard a tenant yelling at her lazy daughter-in-law. I passed the room that my sister, GaoLing, shared with Mother, the two of them still asleep. We hurried to the south-facing small room, to our ancestral hall. At the threshold, Precious Auntie gave me a warning look. Act humble. Take off your shoes. In my stockings, I stepped onto cold gray tiles. Instantly,
my feet were stabbed with an iciness that ran up my legs,
through my body, and dripped out my nose. I began to shake.
The wall facing me was lined with overlapping scrolls of couplets,
gifts to our family from scholars who had used our ink over the last two hundred years. I had learned to read one, a poem-painting:
"Fish shadows dart downstream," meaning our ink was dark, beautiful,
and smooth-flowing. On the long altar table were two statues,
the God of Longevity with his white-waterfall beard, and the Goddess of Mercy, her face smooth, free of worry. Her black eyes looked into mine. Only she listened to the woes and wishes of women, Precious
Auntie said. Perched around the statues were spirit tablets of the Liu ancestors, their wooden faces carved with their names. Not all my ancestors were there, Precious Auntie told me, just the ones my family considered most important. The in-between ones and those belonging to women were stuck in trunks or forgotten.
Precious Auntie lighted several joss sticks. She blew on them until they began to smolder. Soon more smoke rosea jumble of our breath, our offerings, and hazy clouds that I thought were ghosts who would try to yank me down to wander with them in the World of Yin. Precious Auntie once told me that a body grows cold when it is dead. And since I was chilled to the bone that morning, I was afraid.
"I'm cold," I whimpered, and tears leaked out.
Precious Auntie sat on a stool and drew me to her lap. Stop that,
Doggie, she gently scolded, or the tears will freeze into icicles and poke out your eyes. She kneaded my feet fast, as if they were dumpling dough. Better? How about now, better?
After I stopped crying, Precious Auntie lighted more joss sticks.
She went back to the threshold and picked up one of her shoes. I can still see itthe dusty blue cloth, the black piping, the tiny embroidery of an extra leaf where she had repaired the hole. I thought she was going to burn her shoe as a send-away gift to the dead. Instead,
from the shoe 's lining, she took out the scrap of paper with the writing she had showed me earlier. She nodded toward me and said with her hands: My family name, the name of all the bonesetters. She put the paper name in front of my face again and said, Never forget this name, then placed it carefully on the altar. We bowed and rose,
bowed and rose. Each time my head bobbed up, I looked at that name. And the name was
Why can't I see it now? I've pushed a hundred family names through my mouth, and none comes back with the belch of memory.
Was the name uncommon? Did I lose it because I kept it a secret too long? Maybe I lost it the same way I lost all my favorite thingsthe jacket GaoLing gave me when I left for the orphan school, the dress my second husband said made me look like a movie star, the first baby dress that Luyi outgrew. Each time I loved something with a special ache, I put it in my trunk of best things. I hid those things for so long I almost forgot I had them.
This morning I remembered the trunk. I went to put away the birthday present that Luyi gave me. Gray pearls from Hawaii, beautiful beyond belief. When I opened the lid, out rose a cloud of moths, a stream of silverfish. Inside I found a web of knitted holes, one after the other. The embroidered flowers, the bright colors, now gone. Almost all that mattered in my life has disappeared, and the worst is losing Precious Auntie 's name.
Precious Auntie, what is our name? I always meant to claim it as my own. Come help me remember. I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm not afraid of ghosts. Are you still mad at me? Don't you recognize me? I am LuLing, your daughter.