I believe that Amy Tan’s book, The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), may be her most autobiographical novel yet. It is so close to the bone–the bone of memory.
When I read it, I clearly heard exact echoes of conversations and events Amy Tan recorded in her autobiographical “musings,” as she calls them, the essays in The Opposite of Fate (2003).
The Bonesetter’s Daughter is about three generations of women. Ruth Young is forty-six, in a ten-year live-in relationship with her Jewish boyfriend, Art, who has two daughters, Dory and Sophia, from a previous relationship with a woman named Mirriam. (The names alone speak volumes. Ruth’s name comes from the Bible; Art is a muse. Sopia means “wisdom”; Mirriam means “bitter.”) Ruth’s mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and struggles with her memory–but she always has. And her past is full of secrets and complications that Ruth begins to discover … including a mother, Ruth’s grandmother, who committed suicide in China years before.
The story is so much more than the plot, of course. It’s about memory, about writing, about the relationships between the living and the dead. It’s about ghosts. It’s about names, forgetting them and then remembering them again. Christianity is there, trudging along, because Ruth’s grandfather was a Christian … just like Amy Tan’s father and grandfather were.
The book holds in its pages a lot of pain: the pain of loss, of death, of guilt. The pain that hurt me the most to read was a memory Ruth Young had of how she was sexually abused by a neighbor when she was eleven. And I wonder if something like this happened to Amy Tan.
One of the most beautiful parts of the story, for me, is when Kai Jing is telling LuLing, who will be Ruth’s mother, how he loves her. He shows her a little book with brush paintings on mulberry paper called “The Four Manifestations of Beauty.” LuLing, as narrator, says, because they are teachers, “Anyone who overheard us would have thought we were speaking of school lessons. But really, he was speaking of love.” Then he shows her the four manifestations, which are called competent, magnificent, divine, and … effortless.
I believe this is a beautiful book, an important book, a literary book. It is clearly situated in the historical context of each generation it describes. For that and other reasons, it is a story that must be read.