February 21, 2011
Book Club: Will the Real Amy Chua Please Stand Up?
Posted by Sarah Lawsky

I want to build on Christine's earlier post and focus on the fact that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir. So there are at least three Amy Chuas to discuss: Author Amy Chua; Narrator Amy Chua; and "Amy Chua," the book's subject. The book makes clear from very early on that Narrator Amy Chua is unreliable. (Indeed, in a recent interview, Author Amy Chua says, "I've always loved books with unreliable narrators.") Sometimes Narrator Amy Chua is just inconsistent: for example, at the beginning she tells us that her daughters were "never" allowed to go on sleepovers, and later we find out this isn't true. But more frequently, and more enjoyably, she's obtuse, which is the source of most of the humor in this very funny book. For example, in a section that caused both my father and me to laugh so hard that we had to put down the book, "Amy Chua" berates her husband, "What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?" Sophie and Lulu are the daughters, and Coco is, of course, the family's dog. Narrator Amy Chua implies that "Amy Chua" means this seriously, but Author Amy Chua asks us to laugh. 

In other words, Author Amy Chua has created a character, an intense, exaggerated, over-the-top character. (This seems to be a character that she created over time, telling these stories at dinner parties like ones she describes in her book.) A character doesn't have to be false, exactly. I highlight particular aspects of myself when I teach, and they are real, but by leaving some parts of me out of the classroom and emphasizing other parts, I create a character. This person is similar to me in many ways (Professor Lawsky loves tax, video games, sports, her kids, and tax, and she loses things, like the eraser and the remote control), but she is not all of me (just one obvious example: any serious stuff related to my family stays out). If you got to know just the character who teaches my classes, you would not know me.

So I find it unsurprising that Author Amy Chua is maternal and moderate and thus "disappointing" when she discusses parenting at Davos, or that Amy Chua's real-life daughter writes in the New York Post that "no outsider can know what our family is like." Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir, but it is enjoyable in large part because Author Amy Chua does such a good job of creating characters, instead of giving us an accurate blow-by-blow account of life in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. I think Ali G is funny, but I don't expect to get the same sort of entertainment from an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. And if the organizers of Davos had wanted Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to come alive, they should have asked Amy Chua to come as "Amy Chua."

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