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Review: ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ by Amy Chua


By Amy Chua

Penguin, 229 pages, $25.95

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It is difficult to critique Amy Chua’s book without commenting on her parenting style. It’s been a hot topic in the news for several weeks. “Western” parents, whom Chua classifies as too permissive and eager to praise mediocrity, are in turn critical of the author’s “Chinese” style of parenting, which in its most extreme form consists of drill sergeant-type tactics and the seemingly constant reinforcement that “you’re not good enough.”

If they actually read the whole book and not just the “highlights” given in these news stories, many of Chua’s critics would discover she’s not so bad; that some of her parenting ideas actually make sense, and that her children have thus far (they’re teenagers now) managed to become well-adjusted high achievers.

Which brings us to the real issue a book reviewer must address: Is the book any good?

The answer is yes and no. Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is a quick, easy read. It’s smart, funny, honest and a little heartbreaking, but there are holes and contradictions; it lacks depth.

In describing her parenting philosophy, this is how Chua begins: “The Chinese mother believes that: schoolwork always comes first; an A-minus is a bad grade; your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math ...”

But most of the book is about Chua’s relentless focus on turning her daughters into musical prodigies. Sophia, the elder, plays piano; Lulu, the violin. Chapter after chapter deals with the girls’ music lessons and finding the perfect teachers and auditioning for Juilliard and performing at Carnegie Hall, and on and on. A tossed-off sentence here and there lets us know they’re doing well academically but nothing more. Chua does refer to an essay Sophia wrote for school, about learning to play Prokofiev’s “Juliet As a Young Girl.” It is beautifully written, eloquent and reveals wisdom beyond a teenage girl’s years — but there’s no commentary about the essay or Sophia’s writing prowess.

For all her supposed uptightness and insistence that Chinese parenting is best, she outs herself as much more flexible and willing to contradict her own personal codes. She makes statements such as “I don’t believe in astrology, but ...” — then goes on to explain how she and her children are the perfect examples of their Chinese zodiac symbols. And “I don’t believe in bribing children, but ...” she tells Lulu she’ll reward her if she aces her preschool interview in New York City.

Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale law professor and novelist, exists mostly on the periphery throughout the book. (In an interview on “Good Morning America,” he said that’s the way he wanted it.) He’s largely on board with the Chinese parenting, but every now and then, he pulls his wife aside when he feels she’s going too far. More toss-off statements — such as “I was already at a disadvantage because I had an American husband who believed that childhood should be fun” — allow the reader to conclude that Rubenfeld provides a necessary balance in the family.

Oddly, Chua writes most lovingly about her “stupid” dogs: “My dogs can’t do anything — and what a relief. I don’t make any demands of them, and I don’t try to shape them or their future. For the most part, I trust them to make the right choices for themselves. I always look forward to seeing them, and I love just watching them sleep. What a great relationship.”

Chua’s remarkable self-awareness — she knows she’s not mother-of-the-year material — is much of what makes this book readable, so it stands to reason that she’s aware of the incredible irony of that statement.

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