Monday, June 11, 2007

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

Salon magazine has a good plot description and review of this book. I can't seem to marshal the energy to write my own summary, so if you need that, you can read it there. (But you've probably already read this book anyway, right?)

For some reason I stopped reading Amy Tan, after really enjoying her first few books. I think this one just sounded like more of the same, so I took a break. A really loooonnnngggg break, it turns out (10 years, I think). I thought this book might be good to listen to as an audiobook, but I was wrong. My criteria for what makes a good audiobook is kind of narrow and includes "nothing too stressful." For some reason hearing a disturbing passage read aloud really upsets me in a way that just reading the same passage does not. This book kind of chugs along innocuously for a while, then takes a more upsetting turn as Tan takes us back to China just before and during World War II and the Chinese Civil War. For a while I just stopped listening to it, then I thought "why not get the book, and READ it, instead of avoiding listening to it" as I had been doing.

Briefly, Tan has written two stories here: the story of Ruth and her mother, and their relationship in contemporary San Francisco, and the story of Ruth's mother and her life in China before she emigrated. The Chinese story is far more compelling than the contemporary one, which felt thrown together, like Tan just phoned it in. Ruth's mother LuLing suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and I felt that Tan's portrayal of this illness was over-simplified, overly rosy and with an especially unrealistic ending. Tan's writing (in the contemporary sections) was cliché-ridden and her characters formulaic. This is NOT true in the Chinese section; that story is interesting, original, and very well done.

(Book 24, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Yikes. I reviewed this book when it came out and I LOVED it. As for the Alzheimer's, at the time she was writing this, Tan's own mother was disintegrating with it. I felt it was a very powerful rendering of the idea that we ARE our memories -- if we forget them, what do we become? And Tan's other theme is always mothers are daughters -- will we become our mothers, the mothers who so often drive us mad?

Added info.: Also in the course of writing this book, Tan began to lose her own memory. She was also exhausted, etc. She wondered if she had some kind of really early Alzheimer's. Au contraire, it turned out she'd had undiagnosed Lyme disease for years, to the point that she had irreversible neural damage from it.

I wonder if hearing it as an audiobook (where invariably a good deal has to get cut out of a long book -- and hers are long) somehow reduced the power of this one. I know I thought it an incredibly good read....

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, thanks for your detailed comments. It's always good to hear all sides. I think I did the book a disservice by not addressing the "memory loss as metaphor" issue, and you said that well. But still, two things really bothered me: Ruth's denial about the extent of her mother's Alzheimer's disease, her constant search for excuses for her mother's memory loss, and her half-hearted attempts to manage the disease. I kept wanting to shake her and say "don't you see the problem here? You have to deal with this." This was then followed by the really unrealistic portrayal of the nursing home where LuLing ends up. It was such a prettified fantasy of what such places are like. I have had relatives in locked Alzheimer's wards, and they bear NO resemblance to the sugar-coated place where LuLing lives. I felt like Tan missed an opportunity to really examine the disease, and I felt insulted that she expected me to buy this fantasy resolution.

Just to clarify also, I always listen to unabridged audiobooks. That's why it takes me so long to finish them. So I know I didn't miss anything.

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