The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

October 19, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): In memories that rise like wisps of ghosts, LuLing Young searches for the name of her mother, the daughter of the Famous Bonesetter from the Mouth of the Mountain. Trying to hold on to the evaporating past, she begins to write all that she can remember of her life as a girl in China. Meanwhile, her daughter Ruth, a ghostwriter for authors of self-help books, is losing the ability to speak up for herself in front of the man she lives with and his two teenage daughters. None of her professional sound bites and pat homilies works for her personal life; she knows only how to translate what others want to say.

Ruth starts suspecting that something is terribly wrong with her mother. As a child, Ruth had been constantly subjected to her mother’s disturbing notions about curses and ghosts, and to her repeated threats to kill herself, and was even forced by her mother to try to communicate with ghosts. But now LuLing seems less argumentative, even happy, far from her usual disagreeable and dissatisfied self.

While tending to her ailing mother, Ruth discovers the pages LuLing wrote in Chinese, the story of her tumultuous and star-crossed life, and is transported to a backwoods village known as Immortal Heart. There she learns of secrets passed along by a mute nursemaid, Precious Auntie; of a cave where dragon bones are mined, some of which may prove to be the teeth of Peking Man; of the crumbling ravine known as the End of the World, where Precious Auntie’s scattered bones lie, and of the curse that LuLing believes she released through betrayal.

Like layers of sediment being removed, each page reveals secrets of a larger mystery: What became of Peking Man? What was the name of the Bonesetter’s Daughter? And who was Precious Auntie, whose suicide changed the path of LuLing’s life? Within LuLing’s calligraphed pages awaits the truth about a mother’s heart, what she cannot tell her daughter yet hopes she will never forget.

Set in contemporary San Francisco and in a Chinese village where Peking Man is being unearthed, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is an excavation of the human spirit: the past, its deepest wounds, its most profound hopes. The story conjures the pain of broken dreams, the power of myths, and the strength of love that enables us to recover in memory what we have lost in grief. Over the course of one fog-shrouded year, between one season of falling stars and the next, mother and daughter find what they share in their bones through heredity, history, and inexpressible qualities of love.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • Tan is known for her true-to-life depictions of mother-daughter relationships, and the one between Ruth and LuLing is no exception. I could feel Ruth’s frustration with her mother while simultaneously seeing that LuLing had the best intentions for her daughter. The constant strife between them was mostly realistic (though Ruth seemed too much of a wimp at times) and compelling.
  • LuLing’s story about her life in China was by far the best part of the book. I was riveted from beginning to end, and didn’t want the story to go back to San Francisco.
  • Precious Auntie’s story was so damn sad. She became an orphan and a widow on the same day when her wedding caravan was hijacked by Chang, the coffin-maker. Her father died in the struggle, and then her husband died after his spooked horse kicked him in the head. Precious Auntie then tried to commit suicide by drinking boiling ink, but just managed to disfigure her face instead. She then had to act as LuLing’s nanny instead of as her mother, and ultimately succeeded in killing herself upon learning that LuLing was to be married to one of Chang’s sons. Wow.
  • I loved that GaoLing treated LuLing as a real sister anyway. That was a nice touch, and their relationship was great, too.
  • It was satisfying to see GaoLing get away from her opium addict husband and for LuLing to follow her to America. Their lives really did change significantly once they arrived in SF.
  • I liked that the facts about LuLing’s life, as set forth in her writing “Things I Must Not Forget”, showed that she wasn’t actually confused. Precious Auntie was her mother and she was born five years earlier than Ruth thought. Those things are clearly explained in the middle portion of the book.


  • Anything having to do with Art was just a big drag. He was a boring character, and Tan didn’t develop his relationship with Ruth enough to get me to care about him/them as a couple. He seemed so selfish that I couldn’t understand what Ruth was trying to hold onto anyway.
  • I didn’t understand Ruth’s annual week of self-imposed silence. I guess that was supposed to connect her to the mostly mute Precious Auntie, but it just seemed like a stupid thing for a person to do, especially when practical considerations regarding work and family would inevitably get in the way.
  • Ruth was a bit too wishy-washy when it came to LuLing. I wanted to scream at her to be more assertive and to stand up for herself, especially as an adult, but I guess she was resigned to accept whatever LuLing dished out at that point.
  • Some of the stories from Ruth’s childhood were boring and seemed removed from the rest of the novel. For example, the part about Lance (the neighbor Ruth was “in love with” when she was 11) and how Ruth thought she got pregnant from sitting on his urine on a toilet seat, was just way, way out there. That Lance’s girlfriend (or was it wife?) would believe Ruth was pregnant without even asking for details made the whole thing even more ridiculous.


I haven’t read much from Amy Tan before. I think I read the Joy Luck Club ages ago (or maybe I just saw the movie), but nothing in recent years. I was surprised at how enjoyable The Bonesetter’s Daughter was. Yes, there were problems and there were dull patches here and there, but on the whole I found this novel very engrossing and entertaining. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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