The Joys and Sorrows of Amy Tan

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A not-so-funny thing happened to Amy Tan back in 1993 on the day of a gala premiere of The Joy Luck Club, the film adaptation of her phenomenally successful 1989 first novel. "Annette Bening was introducing the screening," Tan recalls, seated in the elegant eight-room condominium decorated in what she jokingly calls "Marco Polo Chinese," in San Francisco's Presidio Heights, where she and her husband Louis De Mattei have lived for nearly 11 years. "My mother was there; she was proud. Everything should have been the formula for somebody being extremely happy. But I cried all day. I felt suicidal. I wanted to jump off the roof. And I said, 'This is not normal. Logically, this does not make sense. Why would I feel this way?'"

The answer, Tan learned, was depression. "Whatever it is that causes it," she says, "I think it's just always going to be there. Part of it is having had a suicidal mother and maybe the things that have happened in my life." She reluctantly began taking antidepressants: "Like a lot of people, I had a resistance, thinking that emotional or mental problems are things that you can deal with other than through medication. I also didn't want anything to affect me mentally. But what a difference! And I thought, 'Boy, what a different childhood I might have had had my mother taken antidepressants.'"

And what a different story The Bonesetter's Daughter (Flamingo; 308 pages), Tan's eagerly awaited fourth novel, might have told. For although she conceived of this work as fiction, not a memoir or an autobiography, Tan, 48, began its creation in direct response to her mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1995. Realizing that Daisy Tan's memory was fading, her daughter planned a fictional meditation on "the things we remember and the things that should be remembered." The work sputtered on and off for four years until her mother's death late in 1999, after which Tan finished it in six months.

The Bonesetter's Daughter, like The Joy Luck Club, shuttles in time and space between present and past, the U.S. and China. The subject once again is the powerful, fraught relationship between mothers and daughters, but this time Tan's focus is narrower and more intense: not the octet of characters and narratives in The Joy Luck Club but a single story encompassing a lineage of three women.

Ruth Young, 46, has lived for a decade stably, though unwed, with Art Kamen, a linguist with two daughters from a former marriage. Ruth works at their home in San Francisco as an editor, which sometimes means ghostwriter, of popular self-help manuals. When people ask if she wants to write on her own instead of polishing the work of other people, Ruth says no. "In an odd way, Ruth now thought, her mother was the one who had taught her to be a book doctor. She had to make life better by revising it."

Ruth feels guilty about using her work as an excuse not to visit her mother LuLing, who lives nearby, and her mother encourages this reaction: "What I should pay you, five dollar, 10 dollar, then you come see me?" But Ruth has reasons to keep her mother at arm's length. Her father died in a hit-and-run accident when she was two, leaving her the sole spectator and victim of her widowed mother's bad temper and ominous threats ("Maybe I die soon!"). But now Ruth realizes that her mother is behaving erratically, even for her, and seems to be mentally fading away. A doctor confirms Ruth's fears, and she understands that she must act as "mother to the child her mother had become."

While trying to straighten out LuLing's chaotic house, Ruth comes across a sheaf of papers written in her mother's graceful Chinese calligraphy. She recalls that her mother had given her a few such pages earlier, which are stuffed in a desk drawer. Ruth hires a translator and vows to read the whole batch of what her mother remembered to write down before she began to forget.

LuLing's story is the vibrant heart of The Bonesetter's Daughter, conveying her childhood in the mountainous, remote Chinese village called Immortal Heart and her love for her nursemaid Precious Auntie, whose father was a locally renowned healer of broken bones, and whose face had been horribly disfigured. How this happened emerges slowly but grippingly, as does the secret of the terrible curse that LuLing believes she carries from Precious Auntie into her second life in America, where she drills the fear of the curse daily into the conscience of her daughter Ruth.

In the final pages of the novel, LuLing tells her daughter, "I'm worried that I did terrible things to you when you were a child, that I hurt you very much. But I can't remember what I did ... I just wanted to say that I hope you can forget, just as I've forgotten."

For all Tan's remark-able ability to inhabit imaginatively other places and times, to render the feel of manufacturing ink sticks in the 1920s or running from the invading Japanese in the 1930s, LuLing's closing words are, the author says, a close transcription of something her own mother, late in life, said to her. "That's exactly what a child wants to hear," Tan says, "and what I as an adult needed to hear from my mother."

The child Amy, born in Oakland, Calif., in 1952, went through a tumultuous life, including, during her 15th year, the deaths of her brother Peter and her father John of brain tumors within six months of each other. She survived her enraged mother's decision, holding a knife to Amy's neck, "to kill me first and then kill herself." She entertained rebellious crushes on druggy, inappropriate boys as a way to drive her frantic mother further up the wall.

The adult Amy has also made it through, at least so far, the peculiar ordeal of celebrity. It began after The Joy Luck Club ascended from the status of best seller to classic-in-embryo, when its author began facing demands to utter windy, geopolitical profundities. "People would ask me about trade sanctions in China. They'd ask me about the 1 million missing baby girls. I saw it as a great danger that people would see the book as some sort of template for how Chinese families are," she says. "To me, my family was the most weird entity. I happened to grow up in it, so that was my point of reference. I'm so much a specifist as a writer. I'm not a generalist."

Fame does have its compensations. Tan mentions in passing that she has visited the White House five times and that she has had dinner with the Clintons on New Year's Eve in Hilton Head, S.C. She also had the unusual thrill of sneaking her two tiny Yorkshire terriers, Lilli and Bubba, in a mesh bag past the guards at the Supreme Court Building for a meeting with Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

She will take her Yorkies with her on her upcoming tour to promote The Bonesetter's Daughter because she won't ask her husband to come along. "It would be too boring for him," she says, but she dreads being alone in hotel rooms. "I was raised with a sense of danger, so it's very much a part of my life. When I'm in a hotel, I think of fires that could happen, and where I should run to or what floor I'm on. I've had my hotel room broken into three times by strangers in the times that I've gone on tour. It's not even [always] a crime. Hotels will sometimes give a key accidentally to someone checking in when there's already someone else in that room. The dogs would bark if somebody were trying to get into the door; they would alert me."

Barring such misadventures, Tan hopes to get some writing done on the road, but she will miss her space in the Presidio Heights condo, where she can work with the shades pulled down from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. without interruption. Except, she admits, those she inflicts on herself: "I have a terrible addiction that has destroyed a lot of my writing time. It's called eBay. I buy everything on eBay. I buy wineglasses. I don't want to worry about breaking crystal wineglasses, so I buy them off eBay for a dollar. When they break, who cares?"

What gives? Tan is rich and famous. She spends some of her leisure time jamming with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a musical group composed of such fellow best-selling writers as Stephen King, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson and Mitch Albom, who give charity concerts, usually for literacy projects. Tan's trademark song, which she performs in dominatrix gear, is a version of Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Are Made for Walking. This high-stepping, whip-cracking woman worries about breaking crystal wineglasses? "I am," Tan says, conjuring a lifetime of joys and sadnesses, "my mother's daughter."

Reported by Andrea Sachs/San Francisco