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A Bond Unbroken by Silence, Illness and Death

Amy Tan returns to the mine of mother-daughter love, with a tale inspired by her own mom's secrets and passing.

February 13, 2001|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The study where Amy Tan wrote her new novel is strewn, like her books, with images of her mom. Framed snapshots are all over, and it's not easy to recognize the maternal juggernauts of "The Joy Luck Club" in the little old lady who peeks from the pictures. Isn't that always the way with other peoples' mothers? The gray hair is wispy; the eyes are wide and confused-looking. Where Tan has posed with her, the celebrity daughter dominates the frame like a peacock. No matter.

"The heart of this story belongs to my grandmother, its voice to my mother," Tan writes in the acknowledgments for her fourth novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," due out Monday from Putnam. Publisher's Weekly calls the story of a woman's disappearing memory "a sure hit." Kirkus Reviews says it's another "beautifully modulated" study of "mothers and daughters simultaneously estranged and bonded."

"My husband, Lou," says the author, "calls it a eulogy."

Tan is sitting in the dark, book-lined dining room of her red brick condo. Her home, in swank Presidio Heights, is decorated in Chinese-print fabrics and Asian knickknacks and fake houseplants--"fakus," Tan calls them. Literary success has meant splitting her time between this home and a New York apartment. Her mother, she says, was dying of Alzheimer's during the book's gestation, even as those photos in her study were being shot.

That mother--the inspiration for so many willful, protective, comic, difficult Chinese-moms-with-a-past in Tan's work--reappears in "Bonesetter's Daughter" as LuLing, the aging and rapidly deteriorating parent of Ruth Young, a San Francisco ghostwriter of self-help books. Every year at the same time, Ruth loses her voice, a quirk that more or less reflects the general voicelessness she feels in her live-in relationship with a divorced white man and his two kids.

The situation is strained further when Ruth discovers that her elderly mother, who lives across town, is losing her mind to Alzheimer's. The mother's illness prompts Ruth to finally decipher the Chinese calligraphy in a dusty memoir her mother hand-wrote, giving part to Ruth and hiding the rest under the cushion of a chair.

The story within, Tan says, is "about memory and the things unsaid between a daughter and her mother, what her mother doesn't want her to forget but has never told her." It is Tan's theme, though she's not as hard on the daughter character as she's been in previous books. The novel is also, again, a refraction of Tan's own life, in broad strokes and odd details.

"My mother died in 1999. Nov. 22, 1999," Tan says. She notes the date exactly in a quiet, scholarly voice. "She was diagnosed in 1995, but she had symptoms earlier than that. A lot of times, especially if you have a mother with an eccentric personality, it's easy to think, 'Well, it's just getting a little worse.' "

But on Thanksgiving Day six years ago, Tan says, she "finally admitted there was something seriously wrong" with her mother, whose American name was Daisy. At a packed family table, the 83-year-old woman insisted she'd been an eyewitness to the murder of O.J. Simpson's ex-wife--a poignant scene that Tan ended up re-creating in the new book.

It is one of countless autobiographical touches that are woven so intricately into the text that "The Bonesetter's Daughter" feels, in places, almost like a memoir:

"I don't remember you ever going to L.A.," the fictional daughter tells her mother, who, in the book, makes the Simpson assertion during a visit to her doctor.

"How I go, don't know. But I there. This true! I follow that man, oh he sneaky. O.J. hide in bush. Later I go his house, too. Watch him take glove, stick in garden, go back inside change clothes--" LuLing caught herself, embarrassed. "Well, he change clothes, course I don't look, turn my eyes. Later he run to airport, almost late, jump on plane. I see whole thing."

"I thought she was just unclear with her English," Tan says now of the real-life moment. "I kept trying to get her to say what she really meant, and she kept saying the same thing over and over. Everybody got real quiet at the table, and finally Lou said, 'Amy, I think you should just let it go.' But in my mind, her mind was in the balance. I needed to get her to change her mind." The author pauses ever so briefly.

"And she didn't, of course."

*

As Tan speaks, she fingers a heavy silver necklace, a gift bought for her by her mother's then-boyfriend during a vacation in China they all took several years ago. Tan is tiny in person, with beautiful hands that are at once knobby and delicate. She is dressed up to have her picture taken. Her black hair, with its trademark bangs, hangs to her shoulders. Her smile, with its smoker's teeth, is rimmed with her signature red lipstick.

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