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The bonesetter's daughter by Amy Tan
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The bonesetter's daughter (original 2001; edition 2001)

by Amy Tan

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Title:The bonesetter's daughter
Authors:Amy Tan
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The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan (2001)

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English (75)  Spanish (2)  Catalan (1)  French (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (80)
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“Those were the small rituals we had, what comforted us, what we loved, what we could look forward to, what we could be thankful for. And remember afterward.”

Ruth Young doesn’t know what to do about her ailing mother LuLing – she’s forgetful and argumentative, clearly on the cusp of Alzheimer’s. In an effort to break through her mother’s increasing paranoia, she finally makes time to sit down and read the memoirs her mother has been asking her to read for years. She learns about her mother’s difficult childhood, the time in a Christian orphanage, the struggle to get to America, and suddenly so much is clear.

The book is divided into three sections – Ruth’s initial struggles with her mother, the written account of her mother’s life in China before and during the Second World War, including the Japanese occupation, and the ending.

I actually particularly enjoyed the first section; Ruth’s struggles as the put-upon daughter, her relationship issues and distrust of her partner’s ex-wife. It’s standard commercial fiction stuff, but tempered by the cultural conflict, and more sensibly introspective than most.

The middle section is the longest. It feels like this is section that the book is really supposed to be about and the other bits are bookends (literally?) but I couldn’t have made it through the whole book if it was all in the tragic, disaster-ridden tone of the middle section. So many of these books seem to tell the same story – The Kitchen God’s Wife, Chinese Cinderella etc. i.e. the story of a daughter of the family who is somehow apart from the others, and her shameful treatment at the hands of the family. This novel is a little happier than average, and LuLing gets her happy ending without too many disasters. I found this section at once the least interestingly written and the most interesting subject matter.

The ending is a little saccharine – the domestic battle that has been bubbling for months is forgotten through a lavish financial contribution; the step-daughters who are surly and difficult at the start of the book suddenly want to spend time with Ruth and her mother. There is a late discussion with someone who would actually have been able to help with Ruth’s troubles had she only thought to ask earlier (as was the case in The Kitchen God’s wife). I wonder whether the concluding section was actually carved too savagely by an editor? In any case, all the issues are neatly wrapped up.

As I always do with this type of book, I found the female characters strong and easily identifiable, while the men were one-dimensional and muddled. Why is this always the case? Something to do with the fact that the whole narrative is from a female perspective? Ruth is a sympathetic protagonist; struggling with her duties as a good daughter, partner and step-mother. LuLing is a more difficult character to understand, but she holds her own well enough.

A perfectly good holiday book, but there’s better works in this genre (by this author, too). ( )
  readingwithtea | Oct 19, 2014 |
Even better than THE JOY LUCK CLUB, and I didn't think that was possible. ( )
  dickmanikowski | Aug 22, 2014 |
I loved this novel. The second part to the story was a little boring at first but it got a lot more interesting as it went along. I love this story and recommend it to everyone (especially females). ( )
  blog_gal | Jul 26, 2014 |
I loved this novel. The second part to the story was a little boring at first but it got a lot more interesting as it went along. I love this story and recommend it to everyone (especially females). ( )
  blog_gal | Jul 26, 2014 |
As an English teacher, I knew I needed to read some more literature by female authors so I could make better recommendations for my students, and I'd heard good things about Amy Tan, so I took this book home from my back table to start this year's holiday reading.

While the major theme of mother-daughter relationships is not my favourite, I did appreciate it as I saw some shadows of my own daughter's, wife's and mother-in-law's lives. There is an excellent mystery story here as well, as Ruth attempts to find out more about her mother's and grandmother's histories. Tan uses multiple images of "voices" with great effect: Ruth's eccentric refusal to speak for a week each year; her role as a ghost-writer in which she helps others find their voice while relinquishing her own; Precious Auntie's loss of voice and use of sign language; LuLing's skill and teaching about the communications in Chinese caligraphy, etc.

The narrative structure is unique and compliments this theme - the first part of the book is told from Ruth's perspective; this gives way to LuLing's perspective in the second part via her book of memories which includes writings from the grandmother, Precious Auntie; then the third part returns to Ruth's perspective, with a renewed understanding of LuLing for her and the reader.

Tan's prose is immaculate - so easy to read, yet vivid and entertaining.

Because I'm not so interested in her subject matter, I won't read another book of Tan's in a hurry, but I will encourage students to read this one and even select passages from it as examples of good writing.


Antony Millen is the author of "Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River To Hiruharama"
[b:Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River To Hiruharama|18067949|Redeeming Brother Murrihy The River To Hiruharama|Antony Millen|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1370951913s/18067949.jpg|25269951]

( )
  Antony_Millen | Jul 7, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Amy Tanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chen, JoanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On the last day that my mother spent on earth, I learned her real name, as well at that of my grandmother. This book is dedicated to them. Li Bingzi and Gu Jingmei
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These are the things I know are true:
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Synopsis for the Dutch edition:
"Wat zou er nog meer in het binnenste van de leunstoel liggen? Ze tastte rond en vond een pakket van bruin inpakpapier, omwonden met een rood kerstlint. Er zat een stapel papier in, met Chinese tekst. Sommige vellen hadden bovenaan een zwierig gekalligrafeerd karakter. Dit had ze al eens eerder gezien. Maar waar?' Als Ruth het huis van haar moeder opruimt, vindt ze een manuscript onder de zitting van een oude stoel. Haar moeder heeft nooit iets losgelaten over haar Chinese verleden, over haar voorouders en over de reden van haar plotselinge vertrek naar Amerika. Maar nu blijkt Ruth het zorgvuldig opgetekende levensverhaal van haar moeder in handen te hebben. Al lezend leert ze haar eindelijk kennen."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345457374, Paperback)

At the beginning of Amy Tan's fourth novel, two packets of papers written in Chinese calligraphy fall into the hands of Ruth Young. One bundle is titled Things I Know Are True and the other, Things I Must Not Forget. The author? That would be the protagonist's mother, LuLing, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In these documents the elderly matriarch, born in China in 1916, has set down a record of her birth and family history, determined to keep the facts from vanishing as her mind deteriorates.

A San Francisco career woman who makes her living by ghostwriting self-help books, Ruth has little idea of her mother's past or true identity. What's more, their relationship has tended to be an angry one. Still, Ruth recognizes the onset of LuLing's decline--along with her own remorse over past rancor--and hires a translator to decipher the packets. She also resolves to "ask her mother to tell her about her life. For once, she would ask. She would listen. She would sit down and not be in a hurry or have anything else to do."

Framed at either end by Ruth's chapters, the central portion of The Bonesetter's Daughter takes place in China in the remote, mountainous region where anthropologists discovered Peking Man in the 1920s. Here superstition and tradition rule over a succession of tiny villages. And here LuLing grows up under the watchful eye of her hideously scarred nursemaid, Precious Auntie. As she makes clear, it's not an enviable setting:

I noticed the ripe stench of a pig pasture, the pockmarked land dug up by dragon-bone dream-seekers, the holes in the walls, the mud by the wells, the dustiness of the unpaved roads. I saw how all the women we passed, young and old, had the same bland face, sleepy eyes that were mirrors of their sleepy minds.
Nor is rural isolation the worst of it. LuLing's family, a clan of ink makers, believes itself cursed by its connection to a local doctor, who cooks up his potions and remedies from human bones. And indeed, a great deal of bad luck befalls the narrator and her sister GaoLing before they can finally engineer their escape from China. Along the way, familial squabbles erupt around every corner, particularly among mothers, daughters, and sisters. And as she did in her earlier The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan uses these conflicts to explore the intricate dynamic that exists between first-generation Americans and their immigrant elders. --Victoria Jenkins

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:43 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known.... In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headsrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion -- all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother's past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 10 descriptions

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