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Notes From the Book Review Archives

In “Before They Were Famous,” on Page 27 of this week’s issue, the Book Review compiles debut works of fiction that became classics. In 1989, Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, reviewed Amy Tan’s debut, “The Joy Luck Club,” for the Book Review. Below is an excerpt.

In “The Joy Luck Club,” her first novel, short-story-like vignettes alternate back and forth between the lives of four Chinese women in pre-1949 China and the lives of their American-born daughters in California. The members of the Joy Luck Club are four aging “aunties” who gather regularly in San Francisco to play mah-jongg, eat Chinese food and gossip about their children. When one of the women dies, her daughter, Jing-mei (June) Woo, is drafted to sit in for her at the game. But she feels uncomfortably out of place in this unassimilated environment among older women who still wear “funny Chinese dresses with stiff stand-up collars and blooming branches of embroidered silk sewn over their breasts,” and who meet in one another’s houses, where “too many once fragrant smells” from Chinese cooking have been “compressed onto a thin layer of invisible grease.”

Moving back and forth across the divide between the two generations, the two continents and the two cultures, we find ourselves transported across the Pacific Ocean from the upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone and Americanized world of the daughters in San Francisco to the world of China in the 20’s and 30’s, which seems more fantastic and dreamlike than real.

In the hands of a less talented writer such thematic material might easily have become overly didactic, and the characters might have seemed like cutouts from a Chinese-American knockoff of “Roots.” But in the hands of Amy Tan, who has a wonderful eye for what is telling, a fine ear for dialogue, a deep empathy for her subject matter and a guilelessly straightforward way of writing, they sing with a rare fidelity and beauty. She has written a jewel of a book.

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