This is a powerful novel that speaks to us about family, memory and words themselves. Ruth's mother, LuLing is getting old and Tan shows us how she copes with this as well as day-to-day family drama and her own somewhat dysfunctional relationship.
Yet the story is not as simple as that. As LuLing plunges into further confusion do to Alzheimers she begins to make strange claims about her family. But as Ruth has her mother's memoirs translated from Chinese to English, she discovers much about her mother's past and she begins to question many things.
The frame narrative of this book is beautiful, and with each layer we care more and more about the various characters. Tan writes with a lot of poise and charm that wraps us under its spell. I did find some passages a little slow, though, and I would have loved some descriptions of China in terms of the landscape and atmosphere.
Above all, this is a novel which explores the meanings of words, the spoken word, the written word, the individual word and collective words. Tan shows us that they have power, mystery and contain lost knowledge.