"For nine hundred years, Precious Auntie's family had been bonesetters. That was the tradition. Her father's customers were mostly men and boys who were crushed in the coal mines and limestone quarries. He treated other maladies when necessary, but bonesetting was his specialty. He did not have to go to a special school to be a bone doctor. He learned from watching his father, and his father learned from his father before him. That was their inheritance. They also passed along the secret location for finding the best dragon bones, a place called the Monkey's Jaw. An ancestor from the time of the Sung Dynasty had found the cave in the deepest ravines of the dry riverbed. Each generation dug deeper and deeper, with one soft crack in the cave leading to another farther in. And the secret of the exact location was also a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation, father to son, and in Precious Auntie's time, father to daughter to me."
Like Amy Tan's previous three novels, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER traverses time and geography, spanning China and America with a complex bridge of generational secrets. The fact that this is common to all her fiction in no way lessens the impact here. Tan's latest offering is her best yet, surpassing even THE JOY LUCK CLUB in its insight into both the painful intricacies of mother/daughter relationships and the tender, awkward dance between women and men.
THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER opens with a flashback of a young girl in China and her nursemaid, Precious Auntie, who communicates in eloquent sign language understood only by her charge. It soon becomes apparent that the young girl is LuLing, now a mature woman who has lived for many years in San Francisco and who has a grown daughter named Ruth.
Ruth's story, set in the present, is told over the next 150 pages. A ghostwriter of self-help books, Ruth reflects on her struggles with Art, a linguistics consultant with two difficult teenage daughters, as she waits out her latest bout of annual psychological laryngitis.
Life for Ruth is made infinitely more complicated by her thorny relationship with her mother LuLing. As far back as they can remember, "they were two people caught in a sandstorm, blasted by pain and each blaming the other as the origin of the wind." Remembering is now at the crux of Ruth's problems. She comes across pages handwritten in Chinese that LuLing entrusted to her ages ago just as LuLing is beginning to lose her grasp on the present.
This novel has had an extraordinary history. Tan turned the finished manuscript into her publishers and then confiscated it after her mother's death and rewrote it entirely. For much of the five years between publication of THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES and her new novel, Amy Tan was dealing with her mother's progressive Alzheimer's, and it's obvious that this is a very personal book for her: "On the last day that my mother spent on earth, I learned her real name, as well as that of my grandmother. This book is dedicated to them."
Amy Tan has turned what must have been an emotional bombshell into a beautifully nuanced tale, not only of the complicated relationships between loved ones but also of the constantly evolving relationships between history and truth, language and memory.
Ruth is a strong, intelligent woman who spent her childhood embarrassed and angered by her Chinese mother and much of her adult life exhausted by the struggle that has become second nature to them both. It is only as she reads LuLing's story that she becomes aware of the child her mother was and the forces that molded that child into the woman Ruth is finally, truly, beginning to know and accept.
The middle of the novel is a first-person telling of LuLing's childhood and how she came to America. Tan's talent is taking one person's life and weaving through it a historical context that enriches the individual one. THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER travels through China past and present, a journey that includes ink making, archaeology, world war, and communism. Yet, whether Tan is describing a mission school, the Peking Man furor, the Nanking massacre, or the cultural revolution, there is never the sense of being spoon fed facts; we are conscious only of the characters and their diverse reactions to the historical maelstroms that sweep them along and the everyday occurrences that alter their lives in small but profound ways.
Nestled one within another like hollow wooden dolls, the secrets of LuLing come slowly to light under Amy Tan's deft pen. As Ruth's life is forever changed by her mother's revelations, we are subtly reminded of the pitifully short time each of us has with our loved ones and how often we take for granted their memories and experiences. A poignant and often humorous book, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER is an example of the best in writing and storytelling, a novel that transcends culture and history to strike at the heart of what makes us human.
Reviewed by Jami Edwards on January 21, 2011
The Bonesetter's Daughter