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
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
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
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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