The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan

The Bonesetter's Daughter

The Bonesetter’s Daughter is a novel by the author best known for The Joy Luck Club book and movie.

It is the story of three generations of Chinese women. The real name of the oldest is not revealed until the end of the book; she mostly is referred to by the nickname “Precious Auntie.” She was born and died in China. Her daughter is LuLing, who was born in China and emigrated to the United States where she now lives in San Francisco. LuLing’s daughter is Ruth, who was born after LuLing arrived in America and also lives in San Francisco.

Much of the story is told from Ruth’s perspective, as she tries to deal with her aging mother and better understand her, which turns out to involve learning about her family more broadly, especially Precious Auntie.

Precious Auntie’s true place in the family is the subject of a mystery in the book. The reader is told right away, though, that Precious Auntie is really LuLing’s mother, so it’s not a mystery in that sense. The mystery is watching Ruth gradually get closer and closer to discovering that truth.

The basic narrative with Ruth at its center is told in chronological order, but much of the material about LuLing and Precious Auntie is told in flashbacks, including a big chunk that is LuLing’s written history of her life and her family. It’s not too hard to follow; if you concentrate you can keep up with whose story we’re getting, where and when it’s taking place, who’s talking (or writing) here, etc.

Psychologically I did find the “story within the story” structure mildly off-putting. There’s the sense that we’re stepping away from the story momentarily, and then it just goes on and on—kind of like reading a footnote that’s dozens of pages long. In fact of course the flashbacks are not really tangents or some sort of optional additional material, but are just as relevant as the central narrative. We’re not stepping away from the story; we’re being told another part of the story. So I get that, but I’m just saying I experienced the structure as a (quite minor) hindrance to my enjoyment of the book.

I’m sure this is considered mostly a “chick book.” The three main characters are all women. Though there’s a certain amount of action and violence in the book, at heart it’s really about relationships. It’s a life-affirming book with a happy ending, filled with feel good messages about the strength and importance of women and how they can have more fulfilling lives and relationships, both with each other and with men.

Speaking of those messages, this is one of those books where the author might as well put a flashing neon sign at the top of each page telling you what the messages are she’s trying to get across, what values the book affirms. Anyone who reads it and says “OK, that was kind of an interesting story, but what’s the point?” has some serious reading comprehension problems.

In fact in that respect it has the feel—I wouldn’t say of a children’s book—but maybe young adult fiction.

You can appreciate the simplicity and obviousness of this book or you can roll your eyes at it. I suppose I’m in between. I don’t like books that are pointlessly obscure, but at the same time a book can be too didactic in its efforts to be morally uplifting, too contrived in reaching all its intended conclusions. For a book that hits so many important issues and has so many potentially heartrending and gruesome details, The Bonesetter’s Daughter feels surprisingly lightweight.

Clearly one of the main themes of the book is the importance of family, specifically the importance of ancestors and their culture, of knowing where you came from and feeling a part of that.

Then there’s the theme of being patient and understanding with the people in your life, and recognizing that the aspects of them that you experience in a negative way, as difficult or annoying, may well be a product of factors in their life that you’re not aware of, and if only you could focus on what it’s like to walk in their shoes you might find it much easier to be accepting of them and feel close to them.

And, the book suggests, as you come to better understand the people in your life, and to accept them and forgive them if necessary, that gives you a better understanding of yourself, and makes it easier for you to accept and love yourself.

At the start of the book, Ruth is a somewhat cold person, driven, efficient, stressed, hard on herself—the kind of person that is more admirable than not, but at the same time seems like she’d be hard to get close to. As she learns more about her mother and the family’s life back in China, and as that enables her to sympathize more with her mother and it improves her relationship with her mother, it also softens her in general, giving her a more positive attitude about life.

These changes help her other relationships as well. A good example of this is her relationship with her boyfriend, which is also an example of how the author sets everything up oh so conveniently to impart the desired lessons.

Her boyfriend—whom she meets in yoga class—is pretty much Mr. Perfect from central casting, the kind of guy female readers will love imagining they’re destined to end up with. He’s the sensitive type, infinitely patient and considerate, possessed of a good-natured, unthreateningly conventional sense of humor, unfailingly loving and generous toward his partner. Ruth has doubts about whether he’s really willing to commit to her—don’t men always struggle with commitment?—so of course when the time comes he grandly says and does all he needs to do to allay her concerns on this point. When she finally learns to love herself enough to accept his love, and she gets over her struggles to let her guard down and let him in, he comes through with flying colors, and the book ends with them well on their way to living happily ever after.

And so, you too dear female reader, can end up in such a relationship with such a guy, if only you’ll let it happen. (Or at the very least you can dream about it while reading Amy Tan novels.)

Mostly The Bonesetter’s Daughter held my interest, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s as nice and uplifting as it is. But a little more bite, a little more moral complexity, might have made it even better.


2 thoughts on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan

  1. Jason Preater February 2, 2015 / 3:00 am

    I know what you mean about the messages. Amy Tan gets away with it because she writes good, clear prose and her characters are believable. I found the Chinese immigrant context very intriguing because it is a world I am totally unfamiliar with.


    • Philo February 2, 2015 / 3:32 am

      Thanks Jason. That’s something I often find valuable in books and movies–the exposure to subcultures or types of people that I have little or no background knowledge of.


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