Tuesday, March 06, 2001

History of heartaches

Amy Tan mines family memories for 'Bonesetter's Daughter'

By Ann Hicks
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “So many combinations, like Chinese names and characters, the same elements, seemingly simple, reconfigured in different ways.” This sentence appears late in The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan's splendid new novel. It is, perhaps, a simple summary of what has taken place in the first 305 pages.

  The Bonesetter's Daughter
  By Amy Tan
  G.P. Putnam's Sons; $25.95; 353 pages
        Grandmother, mother, sister, daughter. What is the truth? We learn after reading the Prologue, but knowing in no way spoils the spellbinding story of secrets, ghosts, curses, shame and love that follows.

        In this, Ms. Tan's first novel since 1995's The Hundred Secret Senses, she again draws heavily on her memories and her mother's life.

        Part One begins in contemporary San Francisco with Ruth and her mother, LuLing.

        Ruth lives with Art, who has joint custody of his two teen-age daughters. LuLing lives 50 blocks away.

        Theirs is not a loving, harmonious mother-daughter relationship. They cannot express to each other what is in their hearts. Now LuLing has become forgetful, confused, suspicious and more difficult to please.

        Cleaning up the clutter in LuLing's apartment, Ruth reflects on the past. So many things have happened that she and her mother never have discussed.

        Ruth finds a bundle of papers, all written in Chinese. She had seen it before, but when? Where? What did it say? (Why hadn't she studied Chinese harder?)

        She sensed this had something to do with LuLing's memory and vowed to ask her mother about her life. This time, she would listen.

        Part Two is LuLing's story. She was born in the early 1900s in the Chinese village of Immortal Heart, south of Peking. It is a sacred place where the bones of many ancestors had been discovered. Her family is successful; they make ink sticks.

        LuLing's life centers around Precious Auntie (her disfigured nursemaid), her sister Gaoling, Mother and Father. Woven in and out of LuLing's story is Precious Auntie's life of tragedy and shame.

        Part Three moves back to the present. Ruth and Gaoling are trying to deal with LuLing's progressing Alzheimer's disease when the translator returns the papers. Ruth stays up all night to read them.

        “It feels like I've found the magic thread to mend a torn-up quilt,” she tells Art. “It's wonderful and sad at the same time.”

        Why did LuLing feel she could not tell Ruth the truth about Precious Auntie? Was LuLing ashamed? Only now does Ruth begin to understand her mother as LuLing and Gaoling put together pieces of the family puzzle.

        There are a number of side plots as well: Ruth's tense relationship with Art; LuLing's marriages and relationship with her sister; Ruth's profession as a co-author (it's her job to make books interesting).

        As always, Ms. Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife (and several children's books) makes fine use of her superb storytelling and writing skills.

        She won't take all the credit, though. “Two ghostwriters came to my assistance during the last draft,” she says.

        The book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother.

        Amy Tan will discuss The Bonesetter's Daughter in an online chat at 1 p.m. Thursday at www.cnn.com/chat.


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