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Book Review

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Suyuan Woo comes to America without her twin daughters. Like An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-ying St. Clair, her days are filled with painful memories of life in China. Suyuan meets these three other immigrants through the First Chinese Baptist Church in 1949. She recognizes they are suffering as she is, so she starts the Joy Luck Club. The women gather each week to eat, play mahjong and share stories. The club continues to meet for decades.

Each woman has children. Four of these are daughters who are close in age and grow up together. In the 1980s, Suyuan’s daughter Jing-mei (June) is a struggling publicity writer. Rose, An-mei’s daughter, is going through a divorce. Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, is a former chess champ who fears her mother will reject her husband-to-be. Lena, Ying-ying’s daughter, finds herself in a frustrating marriage where her high-earning husband insists they split all expenses 50/50.

The over-arching story begins with Suyuan’s death. Several months after she passes, the “aunties” invite June to take her place at the mahjong table. They also reveal Suyuan’s secret wish of reuniting with her twin daughters. As a young mother in China during wartime, Suyuan was forced to flee her city. She was weak and near death. She left her babies by the roadside with all of her valuables, hoping someone would save them.

She unexpectedly recovered and searched for them for years. Ultimately, she had to leave China without them. The aunties tell June the twins have been located, but just after Suyuan’s death. The women have saved enough money to send June to China to meet the twins in her mother’s stead. The aunties insist she tell the girls all about their mother. June wonders how well she really knew Suyuan.

Each of the eight women spends several chapters telling her personal story. Readers learn that after losing her babies, Suyuan emerged stronger. She came to America and started a new family. For many years, she and Lindo were subtly but fiercely competitive where their American-born daughters were concerned.

Lindo survived a miserable arranged marriage in China before slyly escaping her commitment and forging her own path to America. As a child, An-mei dealt with her mother’s abandonment and suicide before learning to stand up for herself. Ying-ying lived with a cheating spouse in China before entering a loveless marriage in America. She considers herself a ghost and expresses many paranoid concerns to her daughter.

Each mother desperately wants her daughter to respect and hear her. They want the girls to learn from their experiences and mistakes. Each feels her Americanized daughter ignores or dismisses her on some level.

In June’s narrative, she talks about her mother’s desperate attempts to make her a prodigy at something. Waverly Jong was a chess champ, so June’s mother needed something about which to boast, too. This led to many mother-daughter battles and June’s impression that she was never good enough. Waverly felt the pressure to succeed as well, and both girls discuss their ever-present compulsion to please their mothers.

Waverly and Lindo come to an understanding and even ponder a trip to China together. June comes to recognize and assume some of her mother’s courage. Rose talks about her passivity as a wife and her eventual ability to stand up to her soon-to-be ex. After years of being saddled with a 50/50 budget, Lena finally has the difficult conversation with her husband about their finances.

The narratives address decades of complicated mother-daughter conflicts. The story ends on a note of hope as these relationships improve. June goes to China to meet her half-sisters and fulfill her mother’s wish.

Christian Beliefs

Many Chinese immigrants, like the four mothers in the story, receive aid from the elderly American women of the First Chinese Baptist Church missionary society. The Chinese women feel compelled to join the church because it offers them aid and language classes. The Joy Luck Club women meet each other at church.

Waverly knows she needs to answer in the affirmative when the Santa at the church party asks if she’s been a good girl and believes in Jesus Christ. An-mei’s first three sons are named Matthew, Mark and Luke. She prays fervently for her fourth son, Bing, after he falls into the ocean and goes missing. The body is never recovered, and she loses her faith in God. She begins to use her Bible as a wedge to steady an uneven table leg.

Her daughter, Rose, sees all this and wonders if faith isn’t just an illusion. She sees that faith gave her parents confidence for a time, as though they felt like they were on a lucky streak. She decides you can’t trust anyone to save you, not a husband, not a mother and not God.

When Lindo wants to go to America, another girl encourages her to say she plans to study religion. The girl says that since Americans have so many different religious views, there is no right or wrong. They will respect Lindo, says the girl, if she claims to be going for God’s sake.

Other Belief Systems

Many of the native Chinese characters hold Buddhist beliefs and adhere to ancient superstitions. June learns her mother’s lost daughters were raised by pious Muslims who thought twins were a sign of good luck.

Authority Roles

The Chinese mothers want the best for their daughters. Some push and criticize heavily, believing this is what their daughters need to succeed. Rose’s future mother-in-law tries to talk Rose out of dating Ted. She essentially tells Rose it would be bad for her son’s future to marry an Asian girl.


The words p---, b--tard, d--n, a-- and s--- each appear once. An-mei’s mother cuts flesh from her own arm and puts it in a soup, hoping to cure An-mei’s grandmother.

An-mei’s grandmother tells An-mei a story about a girl who poisoned herself after refusing to name the father of her unborn child. When a monk cuts her open, he finds a large white melon inside of her.

Lena frequently overhears domestic violence happening on the other side of her wall. The shouts, screams, pushing and shoving make her imagine people are killing each other.


Lindo says she always expected her new husband to climb on her and “do his business,” but he never touched her. Her mother-in-law blames her for not having children, so she takes off her gown and tries to get her husband’s attention. He still won’t sleep with her. She eventually convinces her mother-in-law that a pregnant maid is carrying the husband’s baby. In this way, Lindo frees herself from the marriage.

In Lena’s narrative, she says her mother talked about women having babies they didn’t want. She warns Lena about men grabbing women off the street and making them have babies that they’ll eventually kill. Rose says she and her future husband felt the whole world was against them. This angst fueled their intense sexual relationship.

Lena has a sexual relationship with her boyfriend. Waverly feels resentful when she discovers she’s pregnant with her first husband’s child. She decides to abort it, but explains she accidentally went to the wrong kind of clinic. She says she was forced to watch a film full of puritanical brainwash. Seeing the fingers and toes of the fetuses made her decide not to abort her daughter. In the end, she thanked God she didn’t.

Waverly talks about the sexual chemistry she feels with her boyfriend, Rich. Waverly asks June if she’s nervous because her hair stylist is gay and could have AIDS. An-mei’s mother is raped by the man she’s eventually forced to marry. Ying-ying discovers her husband has had affairs with a number of dancers, American women and prostitutes. She aborts her own baby to get revenge on him.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Gambling: The Joy Luck Club women initially gamble small amounts of money on their games. They start sharing and investing the winnings.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

18 and older




Amy Tan






Record Label



G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group USA Inc.


On Video

Year Published



National Book Critics Circle Finalist, 1989; National Book Award Finalist, 1989 and others


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