In her best-selling novel, Amy Tan explores one of the key themes of contemporary American literature: the clash between the traditional culture of parents raised in a foreign country and the Americanized lives of their children. The polished surface of a mah-jongg table becomes a mirror of the struggles of four elderly women and their daughters to strike a balance between the Chinese past and the American present.
Tan's characters are so well realized that they give the book the tone of an oral history of China during the final days of Kuomintang rule. One woman recalls how she was forced to abandon her infant daughters in her flight from the invading Japanese army; another remembers how a rich man's concubine killed herself to ensure her daughter's future--after teaching the child how to exploit the opportunity her death would afford. Before each of the younger women can establish an identity, she must come to terms with her mother and the influence of a past so alien to contemporary experience it seems like fiction.