My Life in Books continues today with the easiest selection that is the hardest to write about.
Pick a favorite book that you read in early adulthood, especially if it’s one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.
When I saw this question, there was no doubt in my mind what book I would choose. My early adulthood was dominated by my mother’s death the year I graduated college. She was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at the beginning of the summer and died just six months later in the early hours of December 26th. Personally, I suspect she may have watched too much M*A*S*H and decided to eke out those few hours to avoid dying on Christmas itself. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Not long after, I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, a beautiful novel relating sixteen interwoven stories about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters. The plot is set in motion when one of the mothers dies, leaving her daughter, Jing-mei, to piece together the true story of her life and, in a sense, carry out her last wishes. For those of you saying to yourselves “What were you thinking reading a book with a plot like that?” I can only say, you should have seen the movies I was watching.
The book was actually very comforting. I felt such a keen sense of loss that I would never know my mother as an adult, that she had never even seen my first apartment. Yet, in portraying the gaps between the past of the mothers and the present of the daughters, The Joy Luck Club reveals how difficult it is to truly know and understand one’s parents at any time, if only because we are often content with who they are now and how they present themselves to us. We don’t concern ourselves with who they were before. At least, I never did. Oh, I knew superficial details about many things, but I wish I knew more, particularly about my mother, who, after all, left behind her whole world to marry my father.
I realized I wanted to know that world. And, like Jing-mei, I would end up spending a great deal of time there, getting to know family in a way I couldn’t have even imagined a short time before. France was in my blood, but I wanted it to be more present in my life. And so I ended up leaving investment consulting to go back to school for a Masters in French and Italian, which eventually led to a doctorate in French Studies. For the next ten years or so, I lived between New York and Paris, studying, researching, and teaching. And now I live in San Francisco, where The Joy Luck Club is set.
Sometimes books work in mysterious ways.
Tune in tomorrow when Kleenex may or may not be necessary. Unless recent political news makes you want to cry.