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 (Putnam; 353 pages; $25.95), 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."