As early as Amy Tan's dedication to her mother and grandmother, it is clear that The Joy Luck Club is a tribute to intergenerational and intercultural connections. Tan writes: "To my mother / and the memory of her mother / You asked me once / what I would remember. / This, and much more." In dedicating her novel this way, Tan both personalizes and universalizes it. She writes for her own readers--all, that is, who understand the special bonds between women. The Joy Luck Club is set primarily in modern-day San Francisco's Chinatown, but much of it occurs in the form of flashbacks to the mothers' lives in China. As a result, we become familiar with three different times and venues: China, where the mothers grew up, contemporary San Francisco, where the daughters and mothers live, and America in general.
The novel is divided into fours. The book comprises four sections, each of which comprises four chapters. This arrangement represents the four seats at the Mah Jong table. Each chapter in a section is devoted to one mother or daughter, and their stories eventually intertwine to the point that the story of Jing-mei and Suyuan Woo becomes a symbol of fulfillment for all of them. The mothers approach their daughters as they do the game of Mah Jong; they know the best strategy is to make any and all moves secretly so that the revelation comes at the last minute. In this way, the mothers shape their unknowing daughters, imparting precious wisdom while seeming blunt and at times even ignorant. At the same time, the daughters are aware of their mothers' cleverness, which they alternately fear, love, resent, and imitate.
In the first section, "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away," we learn that the mothers are sending Jing-mei to China to find the two daughters Suyuan abandoned during World War II. Then each mother tells a story about her own childhood in China. An-mei Hsu remembers watching her mother scar her own flesh, cutting a piece out of her arm to make a curative soup for An-mei's grandmother. Lindo Jong describes how she used superstition to escape her arranged marriage to a sour, spoiled boy and his controlling mother while preserving her family's honor. Ying-ying St. Clair explains how, when she was a little girl, she got separated from her family at the Moon Festival and found actors performing the story of the Moon Lady. When she went to tell the Moon Lady her secret wish, she found out that the person was really just a man in makeup. Though she grew up with many privileges, Ying-Ying learned early on that women are expected to keep their hopes and desires to themselves--secondary to men's.
In the second section, "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates," the daughters tell stories from childhood. Waverly Jong remembers how she became a national chess champion--but then publicly humiliated Lindo by yelling at her to stop showing her off. Lena St. Clair recalls wishing she could bring Ying-ying back from the deathlike depression into which she sank after a miscarriage. Rose Hsu Jordan explains that despite the fact that her little brother Bing drowned as a child, An-mei still waits patiently for his return. Jing-mei remembers how Suyuan tried to turn her into a Chinese Shirley Temple and piano prodigy. After failing, she simultaneously triumphed over and wounded Suyuan by telling her she wished she were dead like the babies Suyuan abandoned in China.
In the third section, "American Translation," the daughters tell current stories about their mothers. Lena is afraid Ying-ying will see how her marriage is crumbling--since the woman has always been able to predict disaster--which she does. Waverly finally comes to terms with her mother when, despite her fiancÃ© Rich's terrible first impression, Lindo seems to approve of him and acts proud of her daughter. Rose Hsu Jordan receives divorce papers from Ted Jordan; she realizes that while her mother may not approve of divorce, she wants Rose to be strong and free like the wild overgrowth in her garden. Jing-mei recalls that Suyuan gave her a jade pendant the night that she finally let Jing-mei know how proud she was of her for being herself.
In the fourth section, "Queen Mother of the Western Skies," the mothers tell current stories about their daughters, and Jing-mei finally visits China. An-mei wants Rose to stand up for herself in her relationship with Ted just as An-mei stood up to First Wife after her own mother's suicide. In the same vein, Ying-ying wants Lena to fulfill her legacy by standing up to Harold, because she let her own spirit fade away when she got married. At the hair salon, Lindo acknowledges that Waverly is ashamed of her, but when they look in the mirror, neither can deny how much they are alike. The novel ends with Jing-mei and her sisters in China, all marveling at how they look like Suyuan.
Each mother-daughter pair struggles with cultural and generational differences. The daughters tend to see their mothers as old-fashioned, overbearing, out-of-touch, and even threatening. In turn, the mothers are exasperated over their daughters' lack of understanding of Chinese culture, attitudes towards men, and satisfaction in "unglamorous" jobs. It is in moments of conflict with one another and with others that each mother or daughter realizes the validity of the other's perspective. To some extent, they are able to step into one another's skins. The climax of the novel comes when Jing-mei travels to China for the first time to meet her long-lost sisters. It was Suyuan Woo's specific wish to be reunited with her long-lost daughters, but the essence of this wish lives in all the mothers--to be truly connected in spirit to their daughters. Therefore at the end of the novel, Jing-mei has fulfilled not only her own mother's legacy, but also those of all the members of the Joy Luck Club.