This is a beautiful book, from start to finish. It wasn't as intense as some books I've read, but it held me captivated. I'm not sure I can even summarize the plot properly, but it's a story about family - well, about women, mostly (at least that's how I read it) . . . mothers and daughters and sisters. One of the main characters, Ruth, is concerned about her mother, LuLing, who seems to be experiencing dementia. Their relationship has never been an easy one, nor is Ruth's relationship with her live-in partner. But when Ruth discovers a manuscript her mother had written about her life in China - a story which included family secrets and all sorts of things that Ruth hadn't known - she learns some things about her mother, and by extension, herself, which lead to some changes in all of their lives.
We experience Ruth's mother's story as Ruth does - reading LuLing's writing, so it becomes a story within a story. We learn the the truth about LuLing's "Precious Auntie" and the rest of her family, as well as the events (some heartbreaking) of LuLing's early life. I found the contrast to be extraordinarily moving. In the first part of the book, told from Ruth's point of view, it is easy (for me, anyway) to view LuLing as pretty much a big pain in the ass. LuLing is difficult and critical and mostly unpleasant and unreasonable when we see her through Ruth's eyes. (And, Ruth, of course, has her own faults). But in reading LuLing's story, in learning the events which shaped her . . . well, it puts her character in an entirely new light. Not just for me, but also, we discover later in the book, for Ruth. It was interesting to first hear from Ruth about LuLing's tendency to be superstitious (believing in harmful ghosts and curses), and then to see the tragic events in LuLing's life which probably reinforced those beliefs she'd been taught as a child. Another thing I loved was the relationship between LuLing and her sister - just incredible, especially as we learn more about their childhood together.
I found the way LuLing's story was told to be very interesting - understated, not melodramatic or intense, even when the events themselves were frightening or tragic. It was almost as though she had come to accept all that happened, and was no longer upset by it. But, if that was truly the case, I would have expected her to have behaved differently with her own daughter.
Another thing that was fun for me was a bit of understanding I had about some of the Chinese terms and concepts Tan uses, because of my recent study of feng shui. There were a few places where I thought, "hey! I know what that means!" without needing any sort of explanation. Pretty cool. :-)
In any case, I loved this book, and it has inspired me to think a lot about my own life - about the things I remember, the events that shaped me and my mother and her mother. About the meaning of truth, and of the importance of history - or perhaps that the really important thing is to move through the pain and enjoy the happy things in life. While I've made an effort above, I still feel like I'm having trouble describing my feelings about this book. I will say again that it was truly beautiful, one of the best books I've read in a long while, maybe one of my favourites ever. I picked up two of Tan's other books today, that I'd not read before. I'm really looking forward to them, hoping they'll be of similar quality to this one. (Purchased used; have BookCrossed)