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Onyx reviews: The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

"A mother is always the beginning."

So says Ruth Young, the protagonist in Amy Tan's fourth novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter. Ruth is first generation Chinese-American; her mother, LuLing Liu Young, emigrated to the U.S. shortly after the end of World War II.

Ruth is a ghostwriter, the person whose name appears as "written with" on the cover of numerous self-help books. The words always belong to someone else; self-expression is one of Ruth's difficulties. This is symbolized by her weeklong period of psychosomatic muteness every year, which has become a family tradition. It is Ruth's time to be completely self-indulgent.

On days when she is not mute, Ruth has a list of at least ten things to accomplish. She keeps track of her tasks by matching them to her fingers, using the Chinese tradition of associating the more important assignments with auspicious numbers. On especially busy days, she also uses her toes to manage her list.

The main sources of stress in her life are her relationships with her partner, Art Kamen, and her mother. Ruth and Art have been together for nearly a decade, but Art has made it clear that he does not want to marry her and Ruth feels that she is carrying a significant part of the relationship, both emotionally and financially. Art's two teenage daughters from his first marriage, who bonded well with Ruth at first, have grown more distant from her and display little patience with her Chinese ways.

Ruth's mother, LiuLing, has started showing signs of dementia. When she is confronted with a concrete diagnosis of Alzheimer's, Ruth realizes how long she has been in denial. When LiuLing points to a picture of the woman supposedly her nanny, declaring that this is her mother, Ruth assumes it is a symptom of LiuLing's dementia.

Her mother's increasingly erratic behavior forces Ruth to make difficult choices about her life and her relationships. She decides to cast her faltering relationship with Art adrift and devote herself to her acerbic and often ill-tempered mother in what little time they have remaining together. While cleaning LiuLing's house, Ruth discovers two diaries, one by her mother and one by her mother's nanny. Unable to read the Chinese calligraphy, Ruth sends the documents to be translated. What she learns about her mother and their family causes her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her heritage.

The central section of The Bonesetter's Daughter tells LiuLing's story through the diary she titled Things I Must Not Forget, written when she first noticed that her memory was failing. Ruth's mother was born in a small village called Immortal Heart, near the discovery site of the bones of Peking Man. She was raised by the Liu family, always believing them to be her parents. The family worked to make the sticks of ink used in Chinese calligraphy, a profession that brought them much honor and respect.

Also in the household was Precious Auntie, a woman who had mutilated her face by drinking hot ink in a failed suicide attempt. Mute, Precious Auntie communicated in a sign language of her own invention that only LiuLing could interpret. Her position in the household always seemed tenuous and her interaction is almost exclusively with LiuLing. LiuLing learns too late that Precious Auntie, who she treated as a nanny, was really her birth mother. The Lius had taken Precious Auntie and LiuLing into their household because of guilty feelings over Precious Auntie's misfortunes. The daughter of an influential and respected bonesetter, Precious Auntie suffered a serious blow on her wedding day that destroyed her once-promising life. After her death, the Liu's abandon LiuLing to an orphanage, afraid that they are being haunted by Precious Auntie's ghost and that their family has become cursed.

Tan drew heavily from her own life experience in the creation of this book. Her mother died of Alzheimer's in late 1999 and Tan was her primary caregiver during the five years of her mother's illness. The dedication page of Daughter says that on the day Tan's mother died, she learned her mother's real name, as well as that of her grandmother. Even though she had already finished the book and turned it in to her publisher, these events inspired Tan to retrieve the manuscript and essentially rewrite it from scratch.

The sepia-toned photograph on the dust jacket portrays Tan's grandmother, though it also matches the description of a picture of Precious Auntie on her wedding day, the day that would end in tragedy and a generation of lost family history.

The Bonesetter's Daughter is a story of mothers and daughter, and of the old world mixed with the new. Tan's prose is clean and invisible; she never draws attention to herself through her writing, permitting the reader to become swept away by the engrossing tale. Tan has exposed her heart to her readers as she explores the often-times complex relationships between generations.

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