90 minutes (three segments)
Rose Hsu Jordan: "Without Wood"
June Woo: "Best Quality"
An-mei Hsu: "Magpies"
Ying-Ying St. Clair: "Waiting Between the Trees"
Two daughters, two moms. Rose is getting divorced from her husband Ted, and beating herself up about it, and asking for everyone's advice. Which is where the title comes in: "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people"(191) By the end of the chapter, she's stood up to Ted, and told him she's not giving him the house. She's got wood after all. The ending felt a little too pat, a little too easy, a little too predictable to me.
I am in fact finding myself reading more skeptically and more antagonistically than I was at the start of the book. One of the things that is bothering me is that while the book is elaborately organized— "orchestrated" might be more apt—it doesn't make me feel much. It's a book with a high IQ and a low EQ. While Amy Tan is clearly into the architecture of the story, I don't get the impression that she likes her characters all that much. She's good at depicting them, especially their foibles and obsessions, but there isn't anybody here I feel like rooting for. The mothers seem imprisoned by their pasts, and the daughters imprisoned by their personalities.
In her chapter, June is at her mom's for New Year's dinner, and much is made of the fact that there are not enough crabs to go around. June gets upset with the airs that Waverly is putting on and tries to embarrass her, but winds up being embarrassed herself, which leads to her end-of-the-chapter "aha" moment: "That was the night, in the kitchen, that I realized that I was no better than who I was... I felt tired and foolish, as if I had been running to escape someone chasing me, only to look behind and discover there was no one there" (207). Feeling for her, her mother offers her a jade pendant, telling her "This is your life's importance" (208). And you know what? I'm not much moved by any of it. On a scale of revelationary world-shakingness, June's feels like maybe a two. She's diminished by it, and so are we. And the jade pendant thing seems over-freighted with Symbolic Significance. It's a move I've seen maybe one too many times.
An-mei's chapter is mostly a flashback which tells how her mother reappeared in her life when she was nine years old and takes her to live in the household of Wu Tsing, to whom her mother is third concubine. The chapter ends with the mother's suicide, arranged in such a way as to force Wu Tsing to acknowledge An-Mei as his daughter and provide for her. All of this is related by way of conveying An-mei's disdain for and disappointment with her daughter as she wavers indecisively as her marriages breaks up.
Ying-Ying's chapter is also built around a flashback (surprise!) details how she grew up in a very wealthy family, how she married and was abandoned by her husband, how she aborted their child and moved to the city and essentially played Clifford St. Clair for a sucker in order to get him to marry her and take her to America, where she promptly withdrew into her own little world:
So I decided. I decided to let Saint marry me. So easy for me. I was the daughter of my father's wife. I spoke in a trembly voice. I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a wounded animal. I let the hunter come to me and turn me into a tiger ghost. I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit the caused me so much pain.And now she wants to "use this pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (252).
Now I was a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen spirit. (251)
Well, okay, I get it. I see why she did what she did, and why she thought she had to do it, Tiger Mom that she is. But I don't like her a whole lot more than I did before. And I'd argue whether this particular way of loving your daughter, or your husband, has a whole lot to recommend it.
Maybe there will be an updraft of sorts in the last two chapters. But it's hard for me to imagine, at this point, what that would look like. I'm curious as to whether June will in fact go back to China to meet her long-lost siblings, and how that will turn out. That question was planted way back at the beginning of the book. There's things I do like about the book, and I'm curious to see what the students will have to say. But I feel like the last few chapters have been leaking energy.