This was definitely a slow burner for me. Although overall I did enjoy the novel, I didn’t like Tan’s style. Had I been the kind of person who doesn’t stick doggedly to a book even when it isn’t enjoyable, I would have put this one down about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through. I’m glad I didn’t though.
Much of the reason for this dissatisfaction is that Tan takes too long to get to the heart of the purpose of this story – primarily the story of Winnie and her life in war-torn China. We’re given the preamble of the life of Pearl, her daughter, who has her own secrets to tell, and this is used as the raison d’etre for the plot. But it is a weak one. Pearl’s secret (and the conclusion of what she does about it which we find out in the end) is colourless compared to Winnie’s and we’re left really not caring.
Another reason is the use of double first-person perspective for the two characters. We have the first few chapters from Pearl’s point of view and then suddenly, without real warning, we switch to Winnie’s and remain there for the majority of the book before switching back. I didn’t actually realise initially that the narrator had switched and was left a little confused about what was going on for a while. I was quite irritated by this.
That said, Tan writes well and I can see why she is such an international star. I was bemused by the mundane quality of the character – especially Winnie’s as an old woman – as this set us up for such an incredible life story. While this made it hard to get into initially (I found it hard to be interested in these relatively ‘ordinary’ people in an introduction which seemed to meander) the device was excellent. You’re left, by the end of the book, amazed at what people go through in this world. Everybody’s grandmother, or father or great uncle or whatever – no matter how insignificant and boring they may seem in old age – has a story to tell; and what a story that might turn out to be. From this perspective, Tan’s approach was perfect.
And there’s the thing: as a writer I pondered how I would tackle this story differently, how I would have avoided the issues I’ve mentioned above. I found myself unable to find a way. Which perhaps means that Tan hasn’t done things badly but it is simply a case of not enjoying her style of writing. I’m not sure; but I do know that I think I have to read at least one more of her novels to find out. While it was a difficult book to appreciate for the first third or so, by the end I had soaked up Winnie’s character and cared about what happened to her. That’s always a good sign of a writer who knows what they are doing and Tan didn’t disappoint. I do hope I will enjoy the next novel more or I suspect I will be missing out.