Amy Tan's new novel returns to the theme of her bestsellers "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife" -- the tortured love and missed connections between Chinese immigrant mothers and their first-generation American daughters. Before you say "Enough already," she's given the topic a timely twist. What if Alzheimer's disease begins ravaging the memory of a mother, and her daughter realizes that the family past she has never bothered to find out about is slipping away? Ruth Young, a ghostwriter of self-help books and the protagonist of "The Bonesetter's Daughter," is an only child who has spent her life contending with her widowed mother's demands, threats and histrionics; now LuLing's difficult temperament is made even worse by memory lapses and erratic behavior. A doctor suspects some form of dementia, confirming Ruth's growing fear. Suddenly, it seems crucial to start figuring out who LuLing actually is -- that is, beyond the domineering pain in the neck whom Ruth has learned to tune out.
Five years earlier, as she felt her memory fading, LuLing wrote down her life story for Ruth, and Ruth promptly relegated it to a bottom drawer. Now she decides to have it translated from the Chinese so she can read it. LuLing's astonishing story, which stands on its own as Part 2 of the novel, begins with her girlhood in the hills south of Peking, in a village known as Immortal Heart, where she is the oldest daughter of a family of successful ink makers and is cared for by a nursemaid she calls Precious Auntie, who is the bonesetter's daughter of the title.
As much as the reader of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" may sympathize with the witty and self-denying Ruth's frustration with her mother, the truth is that LuLing steals the novel. In flashbacks, we learn that LuLing's obsession with ghosts, especially the ghost of Precious Auntie, was the bane of Ruth's childhood. (LuLing became convinced that Ruth could communicate with the dead nursemaid by writing with a stick in a box of sand; not wanting to disappoint her mother, Ruth played along.) Nonetheless, the story of Precious Auntie's life and death, and LuLing's searching, honest voice as she tells how her own life took shape, are riveting.
The nursemaid had once been an educated and comely young girl, taught by her famous father to use dragon bones found in a nearby cave to cure sickness and heal broken bones. How did she wind up with her face half burned off, her mouth tongueless and contorted, and unable to talk except in a sign language understood only by LuLing? Only at her death is the secret behind Precious Auntie's presence in the family revealed to LuLing. Meanwhile the family ink-making business faces financial ruin and LuLing is sent to an orphanage run by Americans. There she becomes a teacher and marries a scientist involved in the archaeological search for the ancient bones that would become known as Peking Man. The discovery transforms the area into an internationally famous scientific center -- and the dragon bones once used by Precious Auntie's father turn out to be worth more than anyone could have imagined. When war takes its turn in tearing apart LuLing's life, she decides to follow her sister to America.
"Dementia was like a truth serum," Tan writes, and little by little the lies and omissions through which LuLing has conveyed to Ruth her family history come to light. By the time she has finished reading LuLing's story, Ruth must reevaluate everything she thought she knew, beginning with her mother's age and her true family name.
As in her three previous books, Tan's writing goes down easy -- a little too easy at times, particularly in the scenes from Ruth's current daily life. Perhaps the choice to make the novel's heroine a ghostwriter of self-help books is the problem; Ruth's own thoughts often teeter on the edge of the pseudo-profound psychologizing she pokes fun of when it comes from her clients. Tan has also gone overboard in tying up loose ends at the close of the novel. Ruth's sweet but distant boyfriend, Art, transforms into an emoting, relationship-discussing, take-charge female fantasy, while the novel's dream solution to the issue of LuLing's care will make readers dealing with dementia in their own families either laugh or cry. Tan's a much better writer when she allows her characters to be realistically conflicted.
"The Bonesetter's Daughter" comes into its own in the flashbacks to Ruth's childhood, which give an adept and pungent account of the mortifications of a certain type of immigrant childhood: on the one hand overly sheltered and on the other completely without guidance in the navigation of everything from sex to school bureaucracies. And when Tan writes in LuLing's voice, the effect is nothing short of haunting. As she records how LuLing's discovery of her own family history turns her world upside-down just as certainly as do the forces of war and scientific progress, Tan orchestrates an unsentimental, beautifully balanced convergence of historical and emotional truth. LuLing's adventuresome, tragic story is effortlessly dramatic, perhaps because the early-20th century Chinese setting doesn't lend itself to psychobabble -- or, for that matter, to neatly happy endings. The Chinese characters' dependence on ghosts, curses and all manner of other superstitions, meanwhile, may be just a hokey way to get through the day, much like the American self-help credo, but artistically, at least, it makes for much better material.