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The Bonesetter's Daughter    by Amy Tan order for
Bonesetter's Daughter
by Amy Tan
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan takes up once more the theme of a mother / daughter relationship poisoned by the past. She portrays damage that continues to affect the daughter's present relationships, and shows how she heals herself by uncovering the truth of the past and understanding what has driven her mother's actions and responses. I enjoyed this novel just as much as The Joy Luck Club. Though the individual tragedies and problems are quite different, the stories are similar in style.

Ruth Luyi Young is a 'book doctor' who co-authors self-help stories in San Francisco. She lives with a man and his two daughters from a previous marriage. They seem to take her for granted and to take advantage of her, but with her own consent. The reader is given glimpses into the life of Ruth's mother, LuLing Liu Young, even before her daughter learns the same facts. LuLing was raised by a nursemaid 'Precious Auntie' who was left severely disfigured and unable to speak after burn damage to her lower face.

LuLing was a difficult mother, who often threatened to kill herself, and even made the attempt once. Growing up as her daughter limited Ruth's own ability to relate to others. She resents her mother's demands on her and ability to make simple things difficult, a trait that she fears she shares. In common with Tan's previous heroines, Ruth is less than she should be, engaging the reader's sympathy. Her mother has given Ruth a manuscript which tells her story - in Chinese calligraphy that the daughter delays attempting to decipher.

At the beginning of The Bonesetter's Daughter, LuLing descends gradually into the mists of dementia and tries to remember the name of the nursemaid who was actually her true mother. As the story progresses, LuLing exhibits all the symptoms of Alzheimer's and the author makes clear the stress that this creates for her daughter ... 'She was her mother's child, and mother to the child her mother had become.' There are also some amusing moments, since (as Ruth notices) 'Dementia was like a truth serum.'

The reader learns the details of LuLing's and Precious Auntie's past tragedy alongside Ruth, with intriguing insights into old China, the discovery of Peking Man, and World War 2 history. There are continuing themes of ghosts, shooting stars, bones and all the trappings of calligraphy. As Ruth digs out more facts about her mother and grandmother, she finally learns her family name (itself an interesting play on words). 'The family name had been there all along, like a bone stuck in the crevices of a gorge.' By understanding her maternal history, Ruth finally gains the ability to write her own story.

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