A beautifully rendered book in the style of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s fourth novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes us forward and backward in time, skipping between modern-day California and pre-Revolution China. It excels at what Tan is best known for, her exploration of relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters. She also sensitively deals with the issue of immigrant families which split between generations over the old ways vs. the new ways, and she presents us with an intimate portrayal of life in China during the upheaval of war and revolution. And, finally, she weaves the theme of communication—oral, written, pictorial, familial—throughout her novel as a way of letting her readers know that a good way of getting to know ourselves is through getting to know others.
Chinese-American Ruth Young is a ghost-writer of self-help books, living in California with her partner Art with whom she has an increasingly strained relationship. Juggling her personal life, her professional life and her own growing self-isolation, Ruth is also trying to cope with Liu-Ling, her 77-year-old mother who is succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimers. Ruth was raised by Liu-Ling as an only child, and her relationship to her mother has been warped by the fears, superstitions and depression to which Liu-Ling has always been subject. Believing her life is cursed, Liu-Ling’s emotional life is scarred by her past, but it is a past Ruth begins to unravel in the form of a journal her mother has written in Chinese and given to Ruth to “learn the truth.” In the course of that unraveling of her mother’s memories, Ruth is able to reconnect with the mother she has long disdained—and, most importantly, with her own family history.
Through the journal , Ruth learns that her mother had been raised by her family’s horribly scarred and mute nursemaid, the daughter of a famous bonesetter in rural China who treated people’s ills with a secret cache of revered “dragon bones” and “oracle bones.” The nursemaid is horribly mistreated by everyone, and eventually rejected by Liu-Ling herself, who only later—after the woman’s terrible death–learns that the nursemaid was actually her long-suffering mother. Liu-Ling is sent to an orphanage, where she grows up to become a teacher, falls in love with a young anthropologist who is part of a team unearthing “Peking Man,” and learns that the famous “dragon bones” her mother knew the location of through her bonesetter father, were actually part of the world-famous archaeological discovery. Liu-Ling’s husband is killed by the invading Japanese, and Liu-Ling eventually manages to escape to America, where Ruth is born and where Liu-Ling remains haunted by memory of her mother until she is finally able to share her story with her daughter.