Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club was written as a collection of short stories, but the tales of memory, fate, and self-discovery interlock to create a colorful mural that reads like a novel. All four sections open with a Chinese fable, then shift to the stories of four pairs of mothers and daughters. The tone switches from mundane to magical to darkly humorous. The tales, particularly those set in China, are by turns beautiful and harrowing.
The first story begins two months after Jing-mei "June" Woo loses her mother, Suyuan, to a brain aneurysm. Her mother's best friends—June's "aunties"—invite June to take Suyuan's place at their mah jong table so she can sit at the East, "where everything begins."
Suyuan Woo had invented the original Joy Luck Club in China, before the Japanese invaded the city of Kweilin. They had used the group to help shield themselves from the harshness of war. As they feasted on whatever they could find, they transformed their stories of hardship into ones of good fortune.
After Suyuan reaches the United States, she resurrects the Joy Luck Club with three other Chinese émigrés, and the four reinvent themselves in San Francisco's Chinatown. These four mothers hope the mix of "American circumstances with Chinese character" will give their daughters better lives.
In each section of the novel, June recounts her late mother's fantastic tales on evenings after "every bowl had been washed and the Formica table had been wiped down twice." Every time Suyuan tells her daughter about Kweilin, she invents a new ending. But one night she reveals the real ending—how she lost her twin daughters while fleeing the Japanese invasion: "Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies."
After her mother's death, June realizes that she had not fully understood her mother's past or her intentions. She journeys to China to discover what her mother had lost there. She is feverish to find out who she is, where she came from, and what future she can create—so she can finally join the Joy Luck Club.
"Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, 'This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.' And she waited, year after year, until she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English."
—from The Joy Luck Club
Suyuan's story is told through her daughter. She was forced to leave her twin babies on the road in China while fleeing the Japanese invasion.
At age nine, An-mei joins her widowed mother, who is exiled as a rich man's fourth wife. Her mother commits suicide. In the U.S., An-mei questions her faith when her youngest son drowns.
As a child, Lindo outwits her mother-in-law to escape her arranged marriage. Later, she brags about her American-born daughter but also longs for Waverly to notice their similarities.
Ying-ying St. Clair
When her philandering husband dies, Ying-ying leaves her wealthy family and starts over as a shopgirl. She marries an American merchant and emigrates but suffers from episodes of depression as an adult.
Jing-mei "June" Woo
June is a sensitive child whose mother wants her to become a piano prodigy. After learning the truth about her mother's past, she travels to China to find her lost sisters.
Rose Hsu Jordan
Timid Rose is overwhelmed by American choices, but she finds conviction in the midst of a bewildering divorce.
A chess champion as a child, Waverly grows up to become a successful tax attorney. She worries about her mother's opinion of her white fiancé.
Lena St. Clair
Generous Lena shares her mother's powers of intuition but remains powerless to act on them. The prickly division of household expenses reveals the impoverishment of her marriage.
"They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds 'joy luck' is not a word, it does not exist."
—Jing-mei "June" Woo in The Joy Luck Club