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Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons

THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER A Novel; By Amy Tan; Putnam: 354 pp., $25.95

February 18, 2001|VALERIE MINER | Valerie Miner is the author, most recently, of "The Low Road," her 10th book, which will be published next fall. She is a professor of English at the University of Minnesota

Amy Tan's new novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," dramatically chronicles the tortured, devoted relationship between LuLing Young and her daughter Ruth. Spanning the 20th century, the book raises intriguing issues about the nature of literacy, the complications of immigration and the unpredictable lessons of aging. Tan's style is lively, witty, suspenseful and rich in historical detail.

Since Tan's 1989 debut with the best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," she has become a multimedia success, co-producing and co-writing the film based on that book. Subsequently, she has published two other novels, "The Kitchen God's Wife" and "The Hundred Secret Senses," as well as two children's books, one of which is being adapted as a PBS series for young people. All four of Tan's novels examine troubled rifts within Chinese American families.

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" revisits fraught territory explored in "The Joy Luck Club"--family secrets, unasked questions, the suffocation of feudal marriage and the Japanese invasion of China. In the new novel, Tan once again identifies the American-born daughter as cultural mediator for her parent. She shows how, for those of us with immigrant mothers, the lines between obedience and betrayal, gratitude and guilt get inextricably tangled.

Ruth Young, who grows up translating for LuLing, works in San Francisco as a "book doctor," ghost-writing such volumes as "The Cult of Envy," "The Cult of Compassion," "The Geography of the Soul," "The Yin and Yang of Being Single," "The Yin and Yang of Being Divorced." "After fifteen years, she had nearly thirty-five books to her credit. . . . She had been in the business long enough to see the terms evolve from 'chakras' to 'ch'i,' 'prana,' 'vital energy,' 'life force,' 'biomagnetic force' 'bioenergy fields,' and finally back to 'chakras.' "

Ruth's ennui about work extends to home life with Art, her partner of nine years, and his two teenage daughters. Art, a linguist at the Center for Deafness, has begun to take her for granted and, in turn, her erotic interest in him has dwindled. She is irritated by his daughters' lack of respect for LuLing. When we meet her, Ruth has been struck by her annual "mid-August muteness," a condition that occurs every shooting star season. " . . . [S]he came to enjoy her respite from talk; for a whole week, she did not need to console clients, remind Art about social schedules, warn his daughters to be careful, or feel guilty for not calling her mother."

Communication--through silence, body language, traditional calligraphy, sand painting, sign language, word processing, telephone conversations, furtively read diaries and flagrantly ignored family memoirs--is the novel's central subject. And it is failed communication that causes Tan's characters their profound, sometimes fatal problems: "But the way Ruth saw it, LuLing got into fights mainly because of her poor English. She didn't understand others, or they didn't understand her. Ruth used to feel she was the one who suffered because of that. The irony was, her mother was actually proud she had taught herself English, the choppy talk she had acquired in China and Hong Kong. And since immigrating to the United States fifty years before, she had not improved either her pronunciation or her vocabulary. Yet LuLing's sister, GaoLing, had come to the States around the same time, and her English was nearly perfect."

Ruth has always acclimated her mother to and protected her from American life. In addition to linguistic difficulties, LuLing is burdened by secrets about her own childhood ordeals. From the time Ruth is a first grader, LuLing is convinced that her daughter can channel advice from her long-dead mother, by writing with a chopstick in a sand tray. LuLing relies on these supernatural messages about everything from the dinner menu to stock market investments. The practical Ruth plays along to ease her mother's inexplicably pervasive anxiety.

Now, in 1999, when Ruth is 46 and LuLing is 82, they face another communication problem, as Lu-Ling found to have Alzheimer's disease. Ruth, racked with worry about her mother's erratic behavior, moves back to the family apartment. Years before, LuLing had given Ruth her memoir and, finally, as she is losing her mother to dementia, Ruth gets it translated. This memoir--Part II of "The Bonesetter's Daughter"--comprises almost half the novel.

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