Two writers fill the pages of Amy Tan’s latest novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The first and most talented is LuLing, an 82-year-old Chinese woman who, in a tragically beautiful narrative, tells the story of her life before she emigrated to the United States following World War Two. At the heart of her story is Precious Auntie, the illfated mother she grew up calling her nursemaid, who was scarred and mute from a suicide attempt and who finally succeeded in killing herself after LuLing’s blind rejection of her. LuLing is writing because Alzheimer’s disease is robbing her of memory and she wants to set down before it is too late the things that must not be forgotten. The second writer is LuLing’s daughter, Ruth, a 46-year-old professional ‘‘book doctor’’ who earns a living ghostwriting New Age self-help texts. As a writer, she originates nothing, only uses her talent to make the egotistical and commercial ideas of her clients successful.
The writer who stands behind both of these two is the author, Amy Tan. When she writes for LuLing, she is inspired and superb. When she writes for Ruth, she is, like Ruth, competent and clever, but the result lacks comparable mystery and verve. In what she herself has called the most intensely personal’’ of her four novels, Tan stands at a crossroads. Her next level of growth, it seems to me, is to do for the daughters what she has so eloquently done for their mothers: make them heroic and sympathetic women with fiery stories of their own that they themselves passionately tell. A fine and highly readable novel, The Bonesetter Daughter is essentially about writing and the act of writing, what fuels it and how it is created. More specifically still, it is about how we, as women, creatively express our selves via language.
When the story begins, Ruth has lost her voice, an annual occurrence that initially happened when she moved in with Art, her boyfriend, and accepted the work-laden role of caring for him and his two teenaged daughters. Ruth does not effectively speak up for herself, allowing herself to be manipulated into compliance and servitude by Art as well as her clients. When she writes, she squeezes herself into a cubbyhole of a pantry with her notes and her laptop computer.
Ruth’s aphasia was presaged when she broke her arm in a playground accident at six. Suddenly silent, she received her first positive attention as others tried to guess what she wanted and waited on her. It was then that she became a kind of writer—first scratching with a chopstick on a tray of sand to communicate her wishes, and then using that same means to convey messages from her dead grandmother, messages that her mother, LuLing, compelled her to receive (or devise). Ruth was always a facilitator, translating her mother’s Chinese to American teachers, grocers, the official world—and vice versa. As a grownup, she has a troubled history of silence, frozen emotions, submerged anger, guilt—and of hiding herself even as she craftily uses words.
When she belatedly recognizes LuLing’s dementia, she decides that it is time to listen to her mother and try to understand who she is, a resolve which leads her to the pages that LuLing has written about her life. These pages constitute Part Two of the novel, its brilliant center. Whereas Part One is written in objectifying and analytical third person, this second part is an immediate and vibrant first-person voice.
Writing and reading in many forms play a major role in the narrative. LuLing’s family, the Lius, earn their livelihood by selling fine quality ink made by the women of the clan. LuLing acts as translator for the mute Precious Auntie, who devised extravagantly creative ways to communicate with her:
“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.”
LuLing’s story of Precious Auntie’s early life comes from a sheaf of pages that Precious Auntie herself has written. Unlike other women of her time, Precious Auntie is literate and can even execute flawless calligraphy because her widowed father, the famous bonesetter of the Mouth of the Mountain, had ‘‘spoiled her,’’ letting her grow up as a free-spirited girl. These pages reveal the secret of LuLing’s birth—that she is, in fact, the bastard daughter of Precious Auntie and the youngest son of the Liu family Though Precious Auntie thrusts these pages upon her, LuLing does not read them. She only pretends to, wanting to distance herself from the crazy, disfigured woman she thinks she has now outgrown. When Precious Auntie tries to get LuLing to acknowledge her as her mother, LuLing can only give a cruel and uninformed answer; Precious Auntie returns to the room where she had years earlier swallowed flaming pitch, this time to slit her own throat.
The orphaned LuLing survives both marriage and widowhood. In tandem with her Liu clan ‘‘sister,’’ GaoLing, she eventually comes to the United States, where she repeats elements of her mother’s story and enacts an equally painful and troubled relationship with her own daughter, Ruth.
The shorter third section of The Bonesetter’s Daughter returns to third-person narrative and to Ruth. It is a somewhat huddled ending in which Art is transformed from a cad to a generous and loving man, LuLing finds happiness with the old Chinese scholar who translated her text, and Ruth and LuLing make peace with one another. In the epilogue, we find Ruth sitting in her San Francisco cubby with a picture of Precious Auntie in front of her. Though it is the time of year when she usually loses her voice, she can still speak, and she is writing—only now, it is an original story. With her grandmother guiding her to ‘‘Think about your intentions,’’ ‘‘what is in your heart, what you want to put in others,’’ Ruth and Precious Auntie write of what has been and what could be, making the choice not to hide the past but to ‘‘take what’s broken, to feel the pain and know that it will heal.’’
In the early March ‘‘Good Morning, America’’ interview in which she called The Bonesetter’s Daughter ‘‘the most personal novel’’ she had ever written, Amy Tan talked to host Charles Gibson about the role her mother played in this work. Like LuLing, Tan’s mother was stricken with the memory loss and delusions of Alzheimer’s disease. Like all the mothers in Tan’s books, she had a traumatic life and passed on that trauma to her daughter ‘‘like a legacy’’—from Tan’s grandmother, who had killed herself, and perhaps even further back. Before she died in 1999, Tan’s mother, also like LuLing, apologized to her daughter for the terrible things she thought she had done to her but could now no longer remember, and encouraged her to write honestly about their relationship. Tan had struggled with The Bonesetter Daughter for four and a half years; she was so transformed by the redemptive quality of her mother’s death that she, in turn, had to transform her book, with ‘‘help from a new ghostwriter.’’
The mothers and mother-figures have always been the magic of Amy Tan’s fiction. At this point in her life and career, perhaps she will begin to give us that same greatness and grace in the daughters. Writing in the first person, using her own strong ‘‘I,’’ what will Ruth tell us about her thoughts and feelings, what inspirational story will she offer the world? I and many others of Tan’s devoted following are eagerly waiting to read that book.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Amy Tan, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Akasha Hull, ‘‘Uncommon Language,’’ in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 9, June 2001, p. 13.