Psst, this year I am attempting to read one book set in each state of America. To see the full list and what I’ve read so far, click here! Joy Luck Club is also a part of my list for Classics Club, click HERE for that list).
Happy Mother’s Day to all my motherly friends, family, and of course, my own beautiful mother and grandmother! Because of my mama, I know (among many other things) how to cook the most scrumptious cornbread and Red Velvet Cake in existence, the necessity of daily sunscreen for our porcelain (ok, pasty pale) skin, the understanding that a weekend spent on the beach can cure virtually any ailment, and – my personal favorite – the ability to make everyone in a social event feel included and comfortable. I could continue on with so many more reasons why my mom is the best, but in order to avoid sounding trite, I’ll simply say this: I am beyond blessed to call her my mama.
By some unforeseen stroke of luck, my latest pick for the Make America Read Again project was the perfect selection for Mother’s Day Weekend.
Amy Tan’s 1989 novel weaves together the history of four mothers, all Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco, and their American-born daughters. The four older women are friends who spend weekend nights playing Mahjongg together – until one member, Suyuan Woo, suddenly passes. To take her place at the Mahjongg table, Suyuan’s daughter Jing-Mei joins in – and discovers through the other women the richness and mysteries of her mother’s life.
Though this novel is centered around the relationships between mothers and daughters, with all of its intimacies and its conflicts, it is also an immigrant story – of the struggles and horrors the four older women endured in order to reach a better life and the discrimination they all faced while acclimating to American culture. If you think the anti-immigrant sentiment our country currently upholds is new, just read a few pages of this book to realize though the targeted ethnicity changes and rotates, the judgmental attitudes do not.
The matriarchs of each family all survived the brutalities of war, but not without loss – Suyuan Woo was forced to abandon her first two children, twin girls whom their half-sister, Jing-Mei, don’t know about until after her mother’s death. Lindo Joo is forced to become a child bride, Ying-Ying St. Clair is abandoned by her first husband and then marries a man she doesn’t love in order to escape China. An-mei Hsu witnesses her mother making the ultimate sacrifice in order for her daughter to enjoy a better life.
The character of these women are molded around these experiences that they carry with them to America, yet their daughters know virtually nothing of their mothers’ former lives. As Rose Hsu wallows in the sorrow of her husband’s affair, she ignores her mother’s suggestions for action. Waverly misinterprets her mother’s constant push for excellence as a selfish desire to brag about her daughter’s accomplishments. Lena doesn’t understand her mother’s all-consuming grief caused by the stillborn baby she has when Lena is 10, as she doesn’t know her mother’s past. As the story continues, however, each mother and daughter come to an understanding of the other’s nature and worldview. Even Jing-Mei, on her trip to China in search of her long-lost half sisters, achieves her mother’s posthumous “long-cherished wish” to understand the family history.
I will say, this book is only very tangentially set in California – although Tan references some San Francisco landmarks like Mission Hill and Haight-Ashbury, the most memorable scenes are either set in China or in the individual homes of the daughters. I’m still including this book as my California pick for now though, in case I don’t have time to read another California-based book (I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion and John Steinbeck in my day, so I think I have absorbed an adequate amount of west-coast culture for this project anyway).
Though Amy Tan wrote the novel off aspects of her own mother, she also believed that “the book could be about any culture or generation and what is lost between them.” Here’s hoping we lose a little less of our mamas’ personal stories this time around.
Read This Book if:
You love mother-daughter themed books, books about immigration histories and diversity, want to learn more about Chinese culture, looking for a feel-good book in general!
Seriously, this book was an excellent and quick read with depth and a perfect balance of humor and pathos. Highly recommend it.
Other Mother’s Day Reading Rec’s!
If you’re looking for other Mother/daughter themed reads, here are some of my favorites to recommend:
— Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
— The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother by James McBride
— The Mothers by Brit Bennett (new release this year!)
— My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
— A Grown Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson