Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir

Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club; The Valley of Amazement) has woven details from her life and family history into her novels, but Where the Past Begins is entirely nonfiction, making the revelations about her and her family's struggles especially heartrending.

Prompted by her editor to write a book between novels, Tan dives into plastic bins in her office containing documents, letters and photos that form "a past that began before my birth." The memorabilia tell stories of sacrifice, hardship and cruelty, suffered most often by Tan's mother and grandmother. The author makes startling discoveries, including the reason her parents played down their education and the truth about a five-year study Tan participated in as a child. Her parents falsely relayed the study's results to her, hoping to create academic motivation but instead creating self-doubt in Tan for more than 50 years. In tracking down the truth, Tan resembles a private detective determined to close a cold case.

Her doggedness is even more impressive considering she still suffers from the ravages of Lyme disease, which has caused, among other symptoms, brain lesions and seizures. Her father, older brother and mother had brain tumors, which killed her father and brother early (her mother's tumor was benign but she died of Azheimer's). Tan wonders if she faces the same fate. She doesn't wallow in self-pity, though, recognizing her life has been both difficult and extremely rewarding. Her tone is one of graceful acceptance, acknowledging that she can be who she is and write her bestselling books only because of her past. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

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