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Bonesetter's Daughter (Tan)

The Bonesetter's Daughter 
Amy Tan, 2001
Random House
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780804114981


Summary
In memories that rise like wisps of ghosts, LuLing Young searches for the name of her mother, the daughter of the Famous Bonesetter from the Mouth of the Mountain. Trying to hold on to the evaporating past, she begins to write all that she can remember of her life as a girl in China.

Meanwhile, her daughter Ruth, a ghostwriter for authors of self-help books, is losing the ability to speak up for herself in front of the man she lives with and his two teenage daughters. None of her professional sound bites and pat homilies works for her personal life: she knows only how to translate what others want to say.

Ruth starts suspecting that something is terribly wrong with her mother. As a child, Ruth had been constantly subjected to her mother's disturbing notions about curses and ghosts, and to her repeated threats that she would kill herself, and was even forced by her to try to communicate with ghosts. But now LuLing seems less argumentative, even happy, far from her usual disagreeable and dissatisfied self.

While tending to her ailing mother, Ruth discovers the pages LuLing wrote in Chinese, the story of her tumultuous and star-crossed life, and is transported to a backwoods village known as Immortal Heart. There she learns of secrets passed along by a mute nursemaid, Precious Auntie; of a cave where "dragon bones" are mined, some of which may prove to be the teeth of Peking Man; of the crumbling ravine known as the End of the World, where Precious Auntie's scattered bones lie, and of the curse that LuLing believes she released through betrayal.

Like layers of sediment being removed, each page reveals secrets of a larger mystery: What became of Peking Man? What was the name of the Bonesetter's Daughter? And who was Precious Auntie, whose suicide changed the path of LuLing's life? Within LuLing's calligraphed pages awaits the truth about a mother's heart, what she cannot tell her daughter yet hopes she will never forget. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Also named—En-Mai Tan
Birth—February 15, 1952
Where—Oakland, California, USA
Education—B.A., M.A., San Jose State University
Currently—San Francisco, California and New York, NY


Amy Tan is a Chinese-American writer, many of whose works explore mother-daughter relationships. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989) brought her fame and has remained one of her most popular works. It was adapted to film in 1993.

Tan has written several other books, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction essays entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. Her most recent book, Saving Fish From Drowning, explores the tribulations experienced by a group of people who disappear while on an art expedition in the jungles of Burma.

In addition, Tan has written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. She has also appeared on PBS in a short spot encouraging children to write.

Tan's work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. She has a master's degree in linguistics from San Jose University and has also worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities.

She resides in Sausalito, California with her husband, Louis DeMattei, a lawyer who she met on a blind date and married in 1974.

Tan is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band consisting of published writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Dave Barry and Stephen King, among others. (Adapted from Wikipedia and the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Tan's splendid new novels abounds not only with tellers and listeners, but with people who truly understands stories....
New York Times Book Review


Splendid.... [W]hat marvelous characters she gives us.... Tan's decision to tie up all the loose ends...does not mar the real ending, for which Tan's superb storytelling has amply prepared us.
Nancy Wilard - The New York Times Book Review


In the end, it's the novel's depth of feeling that resonates and lingers. Tan writes with real soul.
The Washington Post Book World


Finding emotional healing in the face of disease has launched a thousand Movies of the Week, but in the hands of a writer as generous as Tan, it's a subject that still resonates as an antidote to grief.
Yvonne Zipp - Christian Science Monitor


(Audio version.) Tan's empathetic insight into the complex relationship of Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters is again displayed in her latest extraordinary, multi-layered tale. Now suffering from Alzheimer's, Lu Ling's references to the past are confusing and contradictory particularly her desperate attempts to communicate with her deceased Precious Auntie, who was her nursemaid and Ruth worries about her mother's health. But when Ruth translates Lu Ling's lengthy journal, she learns that her mother was once a strong-willed, courageous girl who overcame a background of family secrets and lies, persevered despite romantic heartbreak and survived tremendous hardships and suffering in war-torn China. Tan deftly handles narrative duties as Ruth, the exasperated but loving daughter, while Chen is perfect as the quick-speaking, accented Lu Ling. Lu Ling's first-person diary is particularly suited to audio: we hear the young girl directly reveal her secret hopes and dreams, and watch her grow from a naive innocent to a sharp-eyed survivor.
Publishers Weekly


Tan's fourth novel (and first in six years) wisely returns to the theme of mothers and daughters simultaneously estranged and bonded, a subject she treated so memorably in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife. Appropriately enough, there are two subtly interconnected stories here. The first is that of Chinese-American "ghost writer" (specializing in "inspirational and self-improvement books") Ruth Young, a workaholic in her mid-40s who's living with a divorced Wasp and his two adolescent daughters while dealing as best she can with her frail, elderly mother LuLing, whose imperfect assimilation into American culture is becoming exacerbated by encroaching Alzheimer's. The story within it is LuLing's written memoir of her childhood in a village near Peking; orphanhood, marriage, and bereavement under Japanese invasion during WWII before she finally reinvented herself and emigrated to San Francisco; and especially her complex relationship with her "Precious Auntie," a victim of patriarchal oppression whose hold on LuLing's mind and heart long outlasts her death, and who proves to have been much more than the "nursemaid" who raised her. LuLing's frustrated efforts to learn the (occluded) truth about her origins is ingeniously linked to the archaeological searches that result in the discovery of "Peking Man"—a discovery later echoed by both Ruth's and LuLing's confrontations with confused and lost identities. The novel builds slowly, and a few sequences (including an overextended account of a visit to an assisted-living facility) seem inexplicably disproportionate. But the elaborate preparation pays generous dividends in thestunning final 50 or so pages: abeautifully modulated amalgam of grief, pride, resentment, and resignation—as Ruth accepts the consequences of knowing "she was her mother's child and mother to the child her mother had become." Tan strikes gold once again.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Bones constitute an important motif in The Bonesetter's Daughter. What is the significance of the book's title? How does breaking a bone change Ruth's life and her relationship with her mother? What importance do bones hold for LuLing and Precious Auntie?

2. Each year, Ruth makes a conscious decision not to speak for one week. Why does she elect to go silent? In which ways does this self-imposed muteness mirror the challenges faced by both her mother and by Precious Auntie? How does Ruth find her voice as the novel goes on?

3. From childhood onward, Ruth is locked in a constant struggle with her mother. In which ways does her behavior echo LuLing's rebellion against her own mother? How do these conflicts have violent consequences, both physical and emotional?

4. To frame the novel, Tan uses the device of a story within a story. How is this effective in bringing past and present together?

5. How does LuLing come to life in her own words, and how is that vantage point different from Ruth's point of view? How is the LuLing that springs to life in her manuscript different from the figure Ruth grapples with on a regular basis?

6. LuLing begins her story, "These are the things I must not forget." Why is she so adamant about remembering—and honoring—what has come before? In contrast, what is Precious Auntie's attitude toward the past? In which ways does she recast prior events, thus concealing the truth from LuLing? How does Ruth grapple with what she uncovers about the history of her family, and what it means for her future?

7. Ruth is shocked to learn that her aunt, GaoLing, is not her mother's real sister. How does the relationship between the two women defy theadage that blood is thicker than water?

8. How does the dynamic between LuLing and GaoLing evolve as the book unfolds? What emotions does LuLing feel most strongly toward GaoLing, and vice versa? Why?

9. Although GaoLing speaks English fluently, by contrast, LuLing never learns to communicate effectively in the language, instead relying on Ruth to be her mouthpiece. How is the spoken word depicted in this novel? Is it more or less important than the written word? How does LuLing communicate in other ways—for example, artistically?

10. How does the concept of destiny shape the lives of both Precious Auntie and LuLing? How does each woman fight against the strictures of fate? In the modern world, does destiny hold as much weight? Why or why not?

11. Both Precious Auntie and LuLing lose love in tragic ways. How is romantic love depicted in The Bonesetter's Daughter? How does Ruth's concept of love differ from that of her grandmother's and mother's? Does LuLing's conception of love evolve over time?

12. LuLing is introduced to Western ideas and religion while living and working in an American-run orphanage. How does she reconcile these different ideologies with the beliefs she holds? Does her belief in her family's curse fade or blossom within the confines of a different societal framework?

13. How does LuLing forge a new life for herself in America? In which ways does she remain constrained by the past, and in which ways does she triumph over it?

14. Which of GaoLing's characteristics enable her to adjust to America with more ease than her sister? Which make it more difficult?

15. "Orchids look delicate but thrive on neglect." In which way does this idle musing by Ruth apply to the other relationships in the novel, including her own with Art and his children?

16. Ruth has lived with the specter of Precious Auntie her entire life. How does her mother's obsession with Precious Auntie affect Ruth? Do you view Precious Auntie's presence next to Ruth in the last scene of the book as a figurative or a literal one? Why?

17. Based on her manuscript alone, the translator of LuLing's story becomes fascinated with her. What about her story, in your opinion, is so alluring and transcendent? How does her fading mind open her to new experiences?

18. As LuLing loses her memory, how does her story become more clear to Ruth? How does Tan explore the transience of memory in The Bonesetter's Daughter?

19. Ruth works as a successful ghostwriter. How is this profession significant, both literally and figuratively, in her communication with her mother and with the world around her? How has her professional life opened Ruth to the world around her, and how has it shut her off?

20. What significance do names and their nuances have in The Bonesetter's Daughter? Why is it so important that Ruth discover her family's true name? When Ruth discovers what her own name means, how does that realization change her relationship with LuLing?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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