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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The novel opens with the parable of a Chinese woman who buys a duck that has stretched itself into a swan. She wants to take the swan to America, but immigration officials will not permit it. All she can keep is a feather from the swan. She treasures the feather and plans to present it to her future daughter, who will be born in America. She will only give the feather when the daughter can speak perfect English. The parable is followed by four sections, each composed of four parts. Each part reveals part of a story about a Chinese mother and her Americanized daughter.
The first story is about Suyuan and her daughter, Jing-Mei (also called June). The story begins in the present and gives flashbacks to the past. Jing-Mei has just been asked to take her motherís place in the Joy Luck Club; it is a ladies group, meeting in San Francisco, that tries to promote the Chinese culture and form friendships among the Chinese women who have left their homeland to come to America.
Suyuan started the Joy Luck Club when she lived in China. When she comes to American as a refugee, she organizes another club in San Francisco. Her American born daughter has never really never had an interest in or understanding of the Joy Luck Club. Jing-Mei thinks of it as only a meeting of women who come together to talk in Chinese and play games.
When she visits the Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei learns that the women in the club are bound by mutual tales of suffering and unhappiness in their native China. The club gives them comfort and friendship by sharing with others who have lived lives like their own. When Jing-Mei visits the club, the women tell her that Suyuan has twin daughters living in China; she had to abandon them many years ago during the war. They also reveal that Suyuan has tried all her life to find these twins. After her death, her efforts pay off, for the twins are located. The ladies of the club want to pool their money to send Jing-Mei to China to meet her half-sisters and fulfill her motherís lifelong wish of a family reunion.
The narrative then shifts to the other members of the club. An-Mei Hsu talks about her childhood when she was under the care of her grandmother and forbidden to talk to her own mother, who had become a concubine to a wealthy merchant. When her grandmother was dying, her mother returned and tried to save her estranged parent from death by severing her own flesh and preparing it in a broth. When she left, she took her daughter with her to the merchantís home.
Lindo Jong's story is different but reveals a similar predicament. Lindo had been engaged as a child to a wealthy boy in the neighborhood. She was sent to live with his family at the age of twelve and was treated like a servant until she turned sixteen. When she finally married, her life was miserable. She learned that her husband was impotence and that her mother-in-law was an impossible, domineering woman. To escape her unhappiness, she came to America.
Ying-Ying St. Clairís childhood story involves a trip to the Moon Lady, a mysterious woman who grants wishes. Ying- ying has been thrown into the sea and rescued by strangers. Since he longs to be reunited with her family, she goes to see the Moon Lady to make her wish.
These four narratives about the childhoods of the Chinese mothers constitute the first section of the novel. The second section begins with another anecdote. This one is about a mother who warns her daughter not to ride her bicycle away from home. The daughter does not obey her mother and rides away; but she falls off her bicycle before even reaching the corner. The narrative then splits into the four stories again, but this time the daughtersí tell of their childhoods.
Waverly Jong remembers one Christmas when her brothers receive a chess set as a present. She is fascinated with the game and teaches herself to play; she soon becomes a child chess prodigy and is even featured in Life magazine. Her Chinese mother is extremely proud of her daughterís accomplishment and spares no opportunity to boast about her. Waverly resents her motherís ambitious and proud nature and tries to run away from her, but is quickly caught. That night in bed, she plays mental chess against her mother, making up the moves for both of them.
Lena talks about her childhood and how her Chinese mother had tried to protect her from evil. Ying-Ying would constantly frighten Lena with stories about ghosts and devils; the moral of the stories was always that obedience pays. As a result, Lena often tries to revolt and be disobedient. Growing up in an apartment in San Francisco, Lena often heard the fighting of her neighbors, an Italian woman and her daughter. She assumed that the women hated one another until she met the daughter and learned that the relationship was strong, though volatile. Lena envied the openness of the relationship, wishing she could talk to her mother with the same openness. Unfortunately, she could not have such a relationship, for her own mother was slowly slipping into madness.
Rose Hsu Jordan remembers a time in her childhood when her parents left her in charge of her brother, Bing. The two of them go to the beach, where Bing refuses to obey Rose. Suddenly, he is swept out to sea and drowns. Bingís death causes Roseís mother to lose her faith in God, and Rose has always felt guilty. Now Rose is losing something dear to her. Her husband Ted has announced he is leaving her for another woman. Rose loses her faith in love.
Jing-Mei Woo remembers the time when her mother had tried to make her a prodigy to compete with the successes of Waverly. Suyuan first dreamed about making her daughter an actress. Then she tried making Jing-Mei a whiz kid. When Jing-Mei showed no enthusiasm to excel in either field, she was forced to become a pianist. She rebelled by playing badly and hurting her motherís feelings. The piano was abandoned until Jing-Mei turned thirty, when her mother made a gift of the piano to her. Jing-Mei did not try to play the piano until after her motherís death, when she discovered two things: she could play well, and her mother had selected music that had great meaning for both their lives.
The influence of the Chinese mothers on their children persists even after they become adults. Waverly is going to be married to an American colleague who also works as a tax-accountant in a reputed firm. Although she has become a polished and successful woman, she is still afraid to communicate her feelings to her mother. When she finally gathers courage to talk to Lindo, she is surprised at her motherís supportive reaction.
Section III opens with an anecdote about a mother who is upset to find her daughter has placed a mirror at the foot of her bed. When she cannot persuade the daughter to remove the mirror, which she believes is bad luck, she purchases another mirror for the head of the bed, to bring balance. Both women emerge happily from the situation.