“While writing this memoir, I was conscious that much of what I think I remember is inaccurate, guessed at, or biased by experiences that came later.” And in this honest, thoughtful, at times meandering memoir, Tan reconciles those memories with events throughout her life.

Music is an essential element in Tan’s world, from her early years when her parents made her study piano with the expectations that she’d become a concert pianist, to now, when she regularly attends orchestral performances.

Tan offers deep insight about the writing process throughout the book, especially when she compares the art of writing to a jazz pianist improvising: MRI imaging “showed that when jazz pianists were improvising, their brains were not more engaged, but less, in particular, in the front lobes.” The front lobes are at the center of self-consciousness and self-censorship, a place she too often finds herself, except when she has had “non-stop improvisational flights.”

But it’s when Tan is digging into the history of her family in China that she discovers when her own past truly began.

Fans of Tan’s novels “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Valley of Amazement” will be thrilled to read about the inspirations for her characters and stories. These chapters really shine, as when she beautifully re-creates in her mind — based on the stories told to her — the lives of her mother (her first husband would put a gun to her head when she refused to have sex with him) and grandmother (who, as a widowed mother, became a concubine).

For Tan, photos often evoke characters and stories, and looking at photos of her grandmother and of women in Shanghai from 1911 (then nicknamed “Sin City”), Tan surmises that, based on how her grandmother was dressed, she could have worked as a courtesan.

Unfortunately, the book loses focus at times, as Tan includes journal entries, stories of cave exploring on Easter Island and e-mails between herself and her editor, Daniel Halpern. The passages offer real insight into Tan, but often feel like digressions.

Tan’s father (an engineer and Baptist minister) was certainly a force in her life, but it was her connection with her mother that fuels Tan’s writing. Her mother, distraught after the death of Tan’s father, once chased her with a meat cleaver. And it is her mother’s words and actions, which Tan so wonderfully evokes, that ultimately form the fabric of Tan’s memories and the person she’s become.

 

Mark Rotella is the author of “Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria” and “Amore: The Story of Italian American Song.”

Where the Past Begins
By: Amy Tan.
Publisher: Ecco, 357 pages, $28.99.
Event: Talking Volumes, Oct. 19, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Sold out.