Lies and the truth

The Bonesetter’s Daughter

LuLing believes her daughter Ruth can communicate with ghosts by scratching with a stick in a box of sand. When LuLing wants guidance from beyond (how to act, where to move, which stock to pick) she asks her daughter to summon the ghost and write in the sand. The young Ruth plays along to appease her headstrong mother.

Well, Ruth grows up to be a San Francisco-based ghostwriter and is stunned to discover that her aging mom now suffers from an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. As her mother’s memories fade, Ruth knows she will soon lose the family history … and the full tale behind the ghost she “spoke” to in the sand—LuLing’s nursemaid Precious Auntie. When Ruth finds the pages LuLing wrote about her past in China, it jump-starts her on an unsentimental journey back in time to uncover the truth about the family’s fantastic secrets.

Welcome to Amy Tan’s latest, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and let me just say this: If the above summary sounds conveniently metaphorical, a little too orchestrated … well, that’s because this book is both of those things.

The funny part is: you’re not gonna mind at all.

Set in modern day San Francisco and in the Chinese village where Peking Man was being unearthed in 1929, Bonesetter’s is mesmerizing despite it’s indulgences—brimming with ghosts, curses, loves and deep dark family secrets. Once you begin Bonesetter’s, clear your calendar for a couple of days. You won’t be able to put this one down.

It is true that you may start out wondering why an author with Tan’s tremendous gifts has chosen to return to so familiar a setting—an immigrant Chinese mother and first-generation American daughter whose secrets seem to hold the key to family happiness. After all, Tan seemed to have explored this territory fully in two other books—The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife. As it turns out, though, there were plenty more truths to unearth here. And this time Tan, who lost her own mother to Alzheimer’s in 1999, manages to dig deep and excavate them all.

The woman for whom the book is named, LuLing’s nursemaid Precious Auntie, is the show stealer of this book. Taught by her famous doctor father to use dragon bones found in a nearby cave to cure sickness, Precious Auntie suffers a tragic accident as a young woman that leaves her lovelost, burned and deformed. Only at her death many years later is the secret of her true role in the family revealed to young LuLing.

After Precious Auntie’s death, LuLing is sent off to an orphanage run by Americans. She becomes a teacher and marries an archeologist involved at the dig site for the ancient bones that would become known as Peking Man. The discovery turns the village into an internationally famous locale and the “dragon bones” once used by Precious Auntie’s father turn out to interconnect with the search for Peking Man. When war breaks out, LuLing ends up in America where she bears a daughter, Ruth, whose fate it is, in modern time, to solve the family puzzles, make peace with the ghosts.

The only flaw in Bonesetter’s is that things tie together too perfectly in the end: secrets are revealed, relationships are mended and everybody gets rich. But who minds? Perhaps all it proves is that, even for a distinguished author like Tan, the well is full of pennies.