This is a really disquieting book in a lot of ways. Despite being of Indian descent (and the child of first-gen immigrants), I was raised in a pretty traditional white American upper-middle-class way. For instance, I do not speak any Indian languages, or play any instruments. So reading a memoir that is meant to indict Western childrearing methods is a lot like reading an indictment of my own childhood, and it makes me want to find ways to tear down the childrearing methods in this book. But what’s the point of that? Chinese people – and Amy Chua in particular – are definitely pretty decent at getting good results out of their children. And their kids don’t seem to be any unhappier than anyone else’s.
What I will say, though, is that this book is a literary masterpiece. I have never read anything like it. The tone of the book is out of this world.
I mean, there are about a hundred ways to write about strict, achievement-oriented childrearing that are totally unobjectionable. It doesn’t seem like Amy Chua really has much of a problem with the things she did (like, say, screaming at her kids if they weren’t first in every subject, or making them practice the piano / violin for hours every night from the age of 3 or 4 onwards). Given that, the ordinary tendency would be to go out of one’s way to soften and justify this behavior. And Amy Chua does do that.
But for some reason, and I don’t know whether it’s guilt or just a masterful grasp of tonal complexity, Amy Chua seems to go out of her way to demonize herself! From the very first page she makes choices in terms of scenes and words that make her look very bad, like the oft-quoted list from the second page:
Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
- attend a sleepover
- have a playdate
- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- watch TV or play computer games
- choose their own extracurricular activities
- get any grade less than an A
- not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin.
Or take this passage:
Once, Sophia came in second on a multiplication speed test, which her fifth-grade teacher administered every Friday. She lost to a Korean boy named Yoon-seok. Over the next week, I made Sophia do twenty practice tests (of 100 problems each) every night, with me clocking her with a stopwatch. After that, she came in first every time.
Now, there are a hundred ways to write that passage in a way that would not make the mind boggle. All Prof. Chua needs to do is say that she worked with her daughter every night until she eventually came in first. Instead she creates this image of a ten year old sitting down every night to do 2,000 math problems while her mom stands over her with a stopwatch!
The whole book is rife with passages that go for the jugular like that. Usually they are followed with a few sentences of explanations or ameliorations or justifications, but those paltry words can never erase the very real, almost palpably abusive mental image that Chua insists on creating again and again.
I found it utterly brilliant. I have never read anything like it. It is very difficult for words on a page to shock me. And whenever they do shock me, it is because they are violating some taboo that I hadn’t thought very much about. But this is a real taboo. People do not go out of hteir way to make themselves look bad. And women especially do not go out of their way to make themselves look like bad mothers. Seriously, if I learned that Amy Chua went out at night and murdered strangers in vacant lots, that would be less shocking thing than for her to write this book the way it is written. It must have required a lot of courage and a lot of genius not to soften its tone.
Oh, it is also rife with interesting flourishes too, like the subplot involving the two dogs her family buys, or her own family’s history, or the really amazing ending, which is basically a conversation between mother and her daughters on how she should write / end this book.