In its rich character portrayals and sensitivity to the nuances of mother-daughter relationships, Tan's new novel is the real successor to, and equal of, The Joy Luck Club. This luminous and gripping book demonstrates enhanced tenderness and wisdom, however; it carries the texture of real life and reflects the paradoxes historical events can produce. Ruth Young is a 40-ish ghostwriter in San Francisco who periodically goes mute, a metaphorical indication of her inability to express her true feelings to the man she lives with, Art Kamen, a divorced father of two teenage daughters. Ruth's inability to talk is subtly echoed in the story of her mother LuLing's early life in China, which forms the long middle section of the novel. Overbearing, accusatory, darkly pessimistic, LuLing has always been a burden to Ruth. Now, at 77, she has Alzheimer's, but luckily she had recorded in a diary the extraordinary events of her childhood and youth in a small village in China during the years that included the discovery nearby of the bones of Peking Man, the Japanese invasion, the birth of the Republic and the rise of Communism. LuLing was raised by a nursemaid called Precious Auntie, the daughter of a famous bonesetter. Once beautiful, Precious Auntie's face was burned in a suicide attempt, her mouth sealed with scar tissue. When LuLing eventually learns the secrets of Precious Auntie's tragic life, she is engulfed by shame and guilt. These emotions are echoed by Ruth when she reads her own mother's revelations, and she finally understands why LuLing thought herself cursed. Tan conjures both settings with resonant detail, juxtaposing scenes of rural domestic life in a China still ruled by superstition and filial obedience, and of upscale California half a century later. The novel exhibits a poignant clarity as it investigates the dilemma of adult children who must become caretakers of their elderly parents, a situation Tan articulates with integrity and exemplary empathy for both generations. Agent, Sandy Dijkstra. (Feb. 19) Forecast: With a readership already clamoring for the book, and Tan embarking on a 22-city tour, this novel will be a sure hit; its terrific sepia-tinted cover photo of a woman in old China only adds to its allure. Moreover, readers will be intrigued by Tan's hint that this story about family secrets is semi-autobiographical. The dedication reads: ""On the last day my mother spent on earth, I learned her real name, as well as that of my grandmother.""