The Joy Luck Club is a novel that tells the story of four Chinese-American women and their daughters who get together to feast and play the Chinese game of Mahjong. Told through a series of vignettes, the narrative explores the lives of these immigrant women and their children, vibrantly depicting the blending of cultures and the struggles of each generation to understand the other. As it paints a poignant picture of family, The Joy Luck Club explores themes of identity and legacy.
The Joy Luck Club consists of sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. In 1949, the four mothers meet at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco and agree to continue to meet to play mah jong. They call their mah jong group the Joy Luck Club. The stories told in this novel revolve around the Joy Luck Club women and their daughters. Structurally, the novel is divided into four major sections, with two sections focusing on the stories of the mothers and two sections on the stories of the daughters.
The first section, Feathers from a Thousand Li Away , introduces the Joy Luck Club through daughter Jing-Mei Woo, whose late mother Suyuan Woo founded the Joy Luck Club, and focuses on the four mothers. Jing-Mei relates the story of how her mother Suyuan was the wife of an officer in the Kuomintang during World War II and how she was forced to flee from her home in Kweilin and abandon her twin daughters. Suyuan later found out her first husband died, remarried to Canning Woo, and immigrated to the United States where Jing-Mei was born. Suyuan and Canning attempted to find Suyuan's daughters, and Canning assumed that Suyuan had given up hope. Jing-Mei, who has been asked to take her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club, learns from the other mothers that her half-sisters are alive. They ask that Jing-Mei go to China and meet her sisters, and tell them about Suyuan's death.
The other three mothers relate the stories of their childhood. An-Mei Hsu's story relates how her mother left her family to become the fourth concubine of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant, while An-Mei was raised by her maternal grandmother. Her mother returns only to cut off a piece of her flesh to cook a soup in hopes of healing An-Mei's grandmother, though An-Mei's grandmother still dies. Lindo Jong explains how in childhood she was forced into a loveless marriage and was pressured by her mother-in-law's desire for Lindo to produce grandchildren. Through her own ingenuity, Lindo fabricates a convincing story to annul her marriage and immigrate to the United States. The final story of the first section follows Ying-Ying St. Clair, who tells the story of how she fell into a lake during the Zhongqiujie festival when she was only four. After being rescued by a group of fishermen, she realizes that she is lost. This experience emotionally traumatizes her, and she is dropped at the shore, and wanders into an outdoor performance featuring the Moon Lady, said to grant wishes. But when Ying-Ying approaches the Moon Lady after the play to wish to be returned to her family, she discovers the Moon Lady is played by a man.
The second section traces the childhoods of the Joy Luck children. In the first story, Waverly Jong talks about how she started playing chess, first with her brothers and then with old men in the playground near her school. At the age of nine, she becomes a national chess champion. She is embarrassed when her mother, Lindo introduces her to everyone she meets, showing her off like a trophy and seeming to take the credit for her daughter's brilliance. This leads to an angry confrontation between the two of them. Lena relates the stories her mother told her when she was younger (her great grandfather sentenced a beggar to die in the worst possible manner). Lena’s family moves to North Hill from Oakland. Her mother, who seems restless, delivers an anencephalic child who dies at birth. In Lena’s eyes, her mother becomes a ‘living ghost’. The story of their neighbors and the relationship between the mother and the daughter of the neighboring household is also mentioned. Rose Hsu Jordan wishes to tell her mother that she plans to divorce her husband Ted. She reflects on their relationship. She then goes on to relate an incident in which her family (her parents and six siblings) go to the beach. Her youngest brother, Bing, drowns. She returns along with her mother An Mei to search for Bing, but in vain. The last story is that of Jing Mei Woo and the pressure that her mother puts on her to perform exceedingly well in some field (to be a child prodigy). She begins to learn to play the piano but doesn't perform well in a concert and stops playing. This disappoints her mother because she wanted her to be a great pianist and Jing-Mei shows no interest in being anything else but herself. Around her 30th birthday, Suyuan presents her an old piano which she used to play as a child. Although Jing-Mei admits she had forgotten how to play the piano, Suyuan encourages her to try again. She admits to Jing-Mei that she still has the talent to be a great pianist, but self-doubt holds her back.
The third section follows the Joy Luck children as adult women, all facing various conflicts. In Lena's story, she narrates her troubling marital problems and how she fears being inferior to her husband, but does not realize he has taken advantage of her both at home and at work, where he is also her boss and earns much more than her. Ying-Ying is very much aware of this and encourages Lena to stop being passive and stand up to her husband or nothing will change. Waverly Jong worries about her mother's opinion of her white fiance, Rich, and recalls quitting chess after becoming angry at her mother in the marketplace. Believing that her mother still has absolute power over her and will object to her forthcoming marriage to Rich. After a disastrous attempt at a dinner party to tell her mother of their wedding, Waverly confronts her mother the morning afterwards and realizes that her mother has known all along about her relationship with Rich and has accepted him. Rose Hsu Jordan learns that her husband intends to marry someone else after divorcing her, she realizes that she needs to fight for her rights and refuses to sign the conditions set forth by her husband's divorce papers. In Jing-Mei's story, Jing-Mei has an argument with Waverly at a Chinese New Year's dinner the year before the story begins. Realizing that Jing-Mei has been humiliated, Suyuan gives Jing-Mei a special jade pendant called "life's importance," which Jing-Mei rues that she never learned the meaning of the pendant's name. She also confronts Suyuan with the belief that she had always been disappointed in Jing-Mei because she never lived up to her high expectations and was always a failure in her eyes. Suyuan eventually reveals her true meaning; that while Waverly has style, she lacks the kind and generous heart that Jing-Mei has.
The final section of the novel returns to the viewpoints of the mothers as adults dealing with difficult choices. An-Mei reveals what happened after her grandmother died; she accompanied her mother back to where she lived as the abused fourth concubine of Wu Tsing, whose second concubine manipulates and controls the household and has taken An-Mei's half-brother as her son. An-Mei learns how her mother was forced into accepting her position after Wu Tsing's second wife arranged for An-Mei's mother to be raped and shamed. When she came to her family for help, they cruelly had turned their backs on her. An-Mei finds her mother has poisoned herself two days before Chinese New Year, knowing that Wu Tsing's superstitious beliefs will ensure An-Mei will grow in favorable conditions. During the funeral, she takes her younger half-brother and forces Wu Tsing to honor both them and their deceased mother out of fear of him being haunted by the mother's ghost. When the Second Wife attempts to discredit her, An-Mei quickly makes an example of her by destroying the fake pearl necklace that she originally gave to her, which exposes her cruelty and manipulation. This causes the Second Wife to realize that she has lost control of the household and brought trouble on herself that she backs down. Fearing bad karma on the way, Wu Tsing honors both An-Mei and her brother as his children and their mother as his favorite 1st wife. Ying-Ying St. Clair reveals how her first husband, a womanizer, abandoned her and how she married an American man she did not love after relinquishing her sense of control in her life. She later took back her sense of control when she finally had a talk to Lena and convinced her to leave Harold. Lindo Jong relates how she arrived in San Francisco and met An-Mei Hsu when they both worked at a fortune-cookie factory, which eventually gave her the means to plant the idea of marriage in her boyfriend's head.
The novel's final episode returns to Jing-Mei and her mother's desire to find her lost twin daughters. Jing-Mei and her father fly to China, where Jing-Mei meets her half-sisters and embraces her Chinese heritage. In doing so, she was finally able to make peace with Suyuan.