The Bonesetter's Daughter
By Amy Tan
368 pages, $26
Amy Tan's new novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," is full of women who do two things: Suffer and write about it.
Do they do anything else? Of course. But not nearly so well.
And there are, of course, a few men around. But, as with the rest of Tan's bestselling books -- among them "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Hundred Secret Senses" -- if you're paying attention to them, you're missing the point. Tan's women are her masterpieces; her men are wallpaper.
Ruth Young, the Chinese-American heroine of "The Bonesetter's Daughter," starts off with a shot at becoming one of Tan's delicate little masterpieces of characterization. That she is not is largely the fault of the author's ever-intricate plotting, which here tapers disappointingly off into New Age-ish mawkishness in the final few pages. Try this:
The picture of her grandmother is in front of her. Ruth looks at it daily. Through it, she can see from the past clear into the present. Could her grandmother ever have imagined she would have a granddaughter like her -- a woman who has a husband who loves her, two girls who admire her, a house she co-owns, dear friends, a life with only the usual worries about leaks and calories?
Yick. That bit of mental mush comes after Ruth -- thirtysomething and a semi-successful ghostwriter of self-help books -- completes an inner journey of self-discovery that is paralleled by a gritty, real-world struggle to care for her mother, LuLing Young, as she recedes further and further into the mists of Alzheimer's disease. All in all, it's a hell of a trip -- more than enough to give Ruth every opportunity to undergo a gorgeous chrysalis.
By the end of the novel, Ruth is just about the same aggravatingly pliant creature she was at the beginning. This is the most frustrating thing an author can do to a reader: Create a character that Does Not Change Through Experience. Ruth is nice at the start. She is nice at the end. She does not throw a tantrum and walk out on the hypercritical loser of a live-in boyfriend she is living with when the novel opens. In fact, she takes his smarmy suggestion to put her mother in an assisted-living facility. Frustrating, frustrating, frustrating.
Thank heaven, then, for Tan's true heroine: The bonesetter's daughter of the novel's title.
This woman is real, and she makes Tan's book the must-read that it decidedly is.
In fact, that "The Bonesetter's Daughter" is as strong and vivid a novel as it is shows two things very clearly: Tan's sheer talent for telling a whopper of a story and the strength of the long-dead character she creates. The bonesetter's daughter is the kind of character that brings out the best in Tan: a strong woman of long ago who remains a real presence to the daughters and granddaughters who come after her.
This character, Ruth's grandmother, is beautiful, even though she is facially scarred. She is proud, strong, and willful. She is also, poignantly, nameless -- at least until the end of the book, when Ruth finally gleans the name of the dead woman from LuLing's fading, wandering memory. The novel is, especially in this regard, an odd exercise in self-revelation and exploration for Tan, who did not know her own mother's true last name until she was preparing materials to write her mother's obituary. That experience spurred Tan to rewrite and finish the novel she had been working on for five years; the result is the present book. Echoing as it does, Ruth's moment of discovery comes as a true victory for both Ruth and her mother, and a surprisingly moving one:
Ruth began to cry. Her grandmother had a name. Gu Liu Xin. She had existed. She still existed. Precious Auntie belonged to a family. LuLing belonged to that same family, and Ruth belonged to them both. The family name had been there all along, like a bone stuck in the crevices of a gorge. LuLing had divined it while looking at an oracle in the museum. And the given name had flashed before her as well for the briefest of moments, a shooting star that entered the earth's atmosphere, etching itself indelibly in Ruth's mind.
The powerful story of these three women is one passed on, generation to generation, in writing. In the rural China of nearly a century ago, Gu Liu Xin -- her name means, in part, "Remain True" -- tells LuLing that they are mother and daughter by writing her a long, passionate explanation. In America decades later, LuLing writes an even longer manuscript for Ruth, in Chinese, to preserve for her their shared family history. LuLing knows her memory is failing her; she writes that she wants to keep alive "the things I know are true."
Finally, by the novel's end, Ruth -- the ghostwriter who has so far written only through the mouths of others -- begins to write her own family's story, for a new generation and an old one. "It is for her grandmother, for herself, for the little girl who became her mother," Ruth thinks.
It is a small change, and perhaps a telling one. Still, there's a lingering regret that Ruth doesn't metamorphasize into a gorgeous new creature through her suffering and learning and writing.
But it's not enough of a lingering wish to erase the powerful impression this book leaves in its wake. And that's more than enough to be happy about.