Whatever she might think of
the finished books, Ruth is psychologically well-suited for the
job: she's methodical, level-headed, and resoundingly responsible.
Her cautious nature has its downsides, though, as her lover,
Art, tells her: "You're like someone who has cataracts and
wants to see, but you refuse to have an operation because you're
afraid to go blind. You'd rather go blind slowly than take a
chance. And then you can't see that the answer is right in front
of you." Art is right, of course (when are characters ever
wrong when they make these sorts of speeches?). And as it turns
out, the thing Ruth has been most hesitant--perhaps even fearful--to
acknowledge is her mother's story and her own place in it.
The fact that her mother actually
gave Ruth a manuscript telling her story in Chinese doesn't help:
Ruth, after all, isn't fluent in Chinese, so she has a ready
excuse to avoid the manuscript. But Ruth's mother, LuLing, is
seventy-seven as the novel opens, and her apparently failing
memory and the threat of Alzheimer's draw mother and daughter
closer together, if only because Ruth fears her mother may unintentionally
harm herself if not watched closely. Ruth is in that terrible
position many adults face with aging parents: "She was her
mother's child and mother to the child her mother had become.
So many combinations, like Chinese names and characters, the
same elements, seemingly simple, reconfigured in different ways."
Perhaps the biggest problem
Ruth faces, though, lies in the past she and her mother collude
to repress. It's largely the cultural differences that separate
them--while Ruth considers herself entirely American, LuLing
has never even bothered to master English after being in America
for fifty years, and LuLing's poor English and misunderstood,
conservative worries embarrassed Ruth even when she was a young
child. As an adolescent, Ruth gained a little control in the
relationship and learned to manipulate her mother through her
cultural beliefs (further undermining the relationship, of course),
as we see in this beautifully handled scene in which Ruth draws
on her mother's belief in ghosts and a sort of automatic writing
to get permission to watch The Wizard of Oz on their neighbors'
new color TV:
"Last year, report card,
you get one Satisfactory, not even Good. Should be everything
Excellent. Tonight better study more."
"But that was in PE!"
"Anyway, you already see
this Ozzie show."
"It's The Wizard of
Oz, not Ozzie and Harriet. And this one's a movie,
"Famous! Hnh! Everybody
don't watch then no longer famous! Ozzie, Oz, Zorro, same thing."
"Well, Precious Auntie
thinks I should watch it."
"What you mean?"
Ruth didn't know why she had
said that. The words just popped out of her mouth. "Last
night, remember?" She searched for an answer. "She
had me write something that looked like a letter Z, and we didn't
know what it meant?"
LuLing frowned, trying to recall.
"I think she wanted me
to write o-z. We can ask her now, if you don't believe me."
Ruth went to the refrigerator, climbed the step-stool, and brought
down the sand tray.
LuLing was already calling in Chinese, "are you there? What
are you trying to say?"
Ruth's ability to fool her
mother erodes some of her fears about her mother's authority,
but at the same time the guilt she feels about her duplicity
drives her further from her mother's reassuring clasp. The distance
between them doesn't get better as they age. Even now, Ruth can't
get Art's teenaged daughters (by a previous marriage) to show
LuLing the sort of respect she expects (though they call her
Waipo--an honorific for "Grandmother"--at Ruth's
request, they think it's merely a nickname). The gap between
mother and daughter--now decades old--seems unbridgeable, until
Ruth finds a Chinese manuscript in her mother's hand while cleaning
Up to this moment, Tan has
built the plot slowly, through Ruth's quiet, inner musings. Ruth
is an appealing character, and she--along with Tan's fluid, subtly
beautiful writing--makes The Bonesetter's Daughter an
engaging, insightful novel. But LuLing's Chinese manuscript,
which Tan gives us in full, is the unexpected heart of the novel,
and its effect on the text around it is breathtaking. Through
the manuscript, which is a memoir she secretly wrote as a hedge
against memory loss, LuLing is transformed from a stubborn, flat
character speaking willfully broken English into a resoundingly
articulate, complicated character with all the desires and worries
of a fully alive person. She becomes, in short, a different person
to us (and Ruth). Her story--of a childhood spent first with
her Precious Aunt and then in an orphanage during the Japanese
invasion that preceded World War Two and finally her immigration
to America--is engaging in itself, but it's the jarring transformation
that most impresses the reader.
"In an odd way,"
Tan writes in the novel's early pages, Ruth's "mother was
the one who had taught her to become a book doctor. She had to
make life better by revising it." But actually I think the
lesson Ruth gains from her mother's memoir is that sometimes
it's the impression of a subject and not the subject itself
that has to be revised. It's a resoundingly writerly idea (appropriate
for a careful, intelligent writer like Tan): Ruth learns to become
a better reader of her mother (who, in Tan's estimate, "is
how things begin"), and the world, she finds, simply no
longer needs repressive revising. The obvious metaphorical extensions
to ourselves as readers and 'revisers' in our own right don't
need amplification, I suppose, but Tan deserves credit for suggesting
them in such an intelligent, meticulously dramatic book.