The Joy Luck Club is a collection of narratives told by seven different characters, woven together into a larger story about the complex relationships between Chinese immigrant mothers and their daughters born in the United States. Both the mothers and the daughters struggle with issues of identity: the mothers try to reconcile their Chinese pasts with their American presents, while the daughters attempt to find a balance between independence and loyalty to their heritage. 

After her mother’s death, Jing-mei feels both a pressure and desire to understand Suyuan’s life and to find a connection between them. When Jing-mei is asked to take Suyuan’s place playing mahjong in the Joy Luck Club, she immediately feels like a poor substitute for her mother. She feels even more inadequate when the members of the Joy Luck Club give her money to visit the half-sisters Suyuan had to abandon in China years ago, asking her to share Suyuan’s story with them. Jing-mei fears that she doesn’t know enough about her mother to tell her tale, but this fear, once expressed, prompts her quest for understanding, also sparking similar quests among the three other women and their three daughters. 

The stories of the other daughters in the novel—Lena St. Clair, Rose Hsu Jordan, and Waverly Jong—mirror Jing-mei’s story, in that all four daughters struggle to find common ground with their mothers and to understand the reasoning behind their seemingly unreasonable expectations. The Chinese mothers strive to instill their American-born daughters with an understanding of their heritage, yet also attempt to save them the pain they felt as girls growing up in China. The daughters, on the other hand, often see their mothers’ attempts at guidance as a form of hypercritical meddling, or as a failure to understand American culture. For example, Waverly struggles to share the news of her engagement with her mother, as she believes Lindo to be hypercritical, especially if Lindo finds out her daughter’s fiancé is white. Lena struggles to find the courage to express to her husband how she is dissatisfied with their marriage’s financial arrangement, and the constant intrusion of her own mother into her marriage only exacerbates the issue. Rose finds it difficult to satisfy her husband due to a passivity her mother fears she passed down to her daughter. 

When using Jing-mei’s narrative as a representative of all the other stories, the climax comes when she travels to China with her father to unite with her long-lost half-sisters. This trip serves in many ways as a test of how “Chinese” Jing-mei feels, of whether she in fact knows her mother well enough to tell her story and carry out her dreams. These issues are also at stake in all of the other characters’ stories; thus, by embarking on her trip to China and receiving her first impressions, Jing-mei is drawing all of the stories’ tensions to a head. 

The novel’s falling action consists in Jing-mei’s realization that she has passed the “test” that the trip constituted. Having journeyed through China for a few days and having met her sisters for only a few minutes, Jing-mei realizes that, deep down, some part of her is in fact Chinese, and that even though she may not think she looks like her sisters or that her sisters look like her mother, the three of the sisters together resemble Suyuan: the sisters will help Jing-mei to come to know parts of her mother that she never before understood, and thus help her to tell Suyuan’s story. In this last scene of the book, Jing-mei successfully creates a bridge between two countries, two generations, and two cultures. For Lena, Rose, and Waverly, they are similarly brought closer to their mothers, who are all still living. Waverly learns that her mother has approved of her fiancé all along. Rose appreciates her mother’s involvement in her marriage, as it is because of An-mei that she was able to stand up for herself. Lena, like Rose, only finds the courage to express her dissatisfaction through her mother’s encouragement. Taken altogether, this novel encompasses the fundamental bond between mothers and daughters, regardless of generational or cultural challenges.