The Joy Luck Club contains sixteen interwoven stories about conflicts between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters. The book hinges on Jing-mei’s trip to China to meet her half-sisters, twins Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa. The half-sisters remained behind in China because Jing-mei’s mother, Suyuan, was forced to leave them on the roadside during her desperate flight from Japan’s invasion of Kweilin during World War II. Jing-mei was born to a different father years later, in America. Suyuan intended to return to China for her other daughters, but failed to find them before her death.
Jing-mei has taken her mother’s place playing mahjong in a weekly gathering her mother had organized in China and revived in San Francisco: the Joy Luck Club. The club’s other members—Lindo, Ying-ying, and An-mei—are three of her mother’s oldest friends and fellow immigrants. They tell Jing-mei that just before Suyuan died, she had finally succeeded in locating the address of her lost daughters. The three women repeatedly urge Jing-mei to travel to China and tell her sisters about their mother’s life. But Jing-mei wonders whether she is capable of telling her mother’s story, and the three older women fear that Jing-mei’s doubts may be justified. They fear that their own daughters, like Jing-mei, may not know or appreciate the stories of their mothers’ lives.
The novel is composed of four sections, each of which contains four separate narratives. In the first four stories of the book, the mothers, speaking in turn, recall with astonishing clarity their relationships with their own mothers, and they worry that their daughters’ recollections of them will never possess the same intensity. In the second section, these daughters—Waverly, Jing-mei, Lena, and Rose—relate their recollections of their childhood relationships with their mothers; the great lucidity and force with which they tell their stories proves their mothers’ fears at least partially unfounded. In the third group of stories, the four daughters narrate their adult dilemmas—troubles in marriage and with their careers. Although they believe that their mothers’ antiquated ideas do not pertain to their own very American lifestyles, their search for solutions inevitably brings them back to their relationships with the older generation. In the final group of stories, the mothers struggle to offer solutions and support to their daughters, in the process learning more about themselves. Lindo recognizes through her daughter Waverly that she has been irrevocably changed by American culture. Ying-ying realizes that Lena has unwittingly followed her passive example in her marriage to Harold Livotny. An-mei realizes that Rose has not completely understood the lessons she intended to teach her about faith and hope.
Although Jing-mei fears that she cannot adequately portray her mother’s life, Suyuan’s story permeates the novel via Jing-mei’s voice: she speaks for Suyuan in the first and fourth sections, the two “mothers’ sections,” of the novel. Suyuan’s story is representative of the struggle to maintain the mother-daughter bond across cultural and generational gaps; by telling this story as her mother’s daughter, Jing-mei enacts and cements the very bond that is the subject of Suyuan’s story. When Jing-mei finally travels to China and helps her half-sisters to know a mother they cannot remember, she forges two other mother-daughter bonds as well. Her journey represents a reconciliation between Suyuan’s two lives, between two cultures, and between mother and daughter. This enables Jing-mei to bring closure and resolution to her mother’s story, but also to her own. In addition, the journey brings hope to the other members of the Joy Luck Club that they too can reconcile the oppositions in their lives between past and present, between cultures, and between generations.