Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Motherhood memoirs ("momoirs') have become as plentiful as pansies in the last decade or so (full disclosure: I have written one as well), producing a number of subgenres, from mothering special needs children to being a bad (but not really) mommy. Despite the variety in tone and topic, the true feelings of the mothers writing these books is never in question. What makes Amy Chua's mother-from-hell memoir truly unusual--and unusually compelling--is that the author never really tips her hand. One assumes, for example, that while she might regularly berate and shame her daughters for anything less than perfection, force them to practice piano and violin daily for hours on end (even during vacations), and never allow them to participate in school plays or sleepovers in private, there is no way she'd admit to it in public unless it was all an exaggeration. The gulag-type atmosphere in which Chua is raising her daughters must be a tongue-in-cheek representation, one thinks. Unless it isn't.

The eldest child of an overachieving family of Chinese immigrants (her youngest sister, born with Down syndrome, has won two gold medals in the Special Olympics), Chua was determined to raise her daughters Sophia and Lulu "the Chinese way." Theoretically, this meant instilling in them respect, duty and a flawless work ethic while cultivating their musical talent with constant practice until they achieved Carnegie Hall-ready solo status. What it meant practically, however, was an autocratic, shrill parenting style (one she readily admits is stereotypical) that resulted in countless hours of screaming matches, torn sheets of music, arguments with her otherwise understanding Jewish husband, teeth marks in the piano and, ultimately, a full-scale rebellion by Lulu.

Chua is stridently unapologetic about the lengths to which she pushes her daughters and herself in her quest for perfection and her desire to avoid what she sees as lazy, indulgent Western parenting. Indeed, her efforts do bear fruit; both girls excel academically, but more importantly musically. Sophia did play at Carnegie Hall when she was barely a teenager and Lulu might have followed suit with the violin were it not for a complete rejection of Chua's relentless, punitive attempts to control her. Because Chua's tone remains consistent throughout (she never admits to being at fault, nor gives an inch on her philosophy), it is easy to classify her parenting as borderline abusive. Too easy, in fact. A more careful read reveals a much more nuanced mother; one who has a very well developed sense of irony, is deeply funny, unquestionably devoted to her children, and not altogether wrong.--Debra Ginsberg

Shelf Talker: An unusual and thought-provoking memoir from Amy Chua about trying to raise her daughters "the Chinese way." Sometimes alarming, often very funny, and always compelling.


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