Monday, June 13, 2011

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan — 368 pages

The Hundred Secret Senses: A NovelOlivia was born to a Chinese father and American mother and has lived all her life in San Fransisco. Her father passes away while she’s still young, but not before telling her mother he was married before and fathered a child in China. As his dying wish, he asks Olivia’s mother to find this child and bring her to America. Soon Olivia’s half-sister, Kwan, is living with the family, but she’s not what you would call normal by Chinese nor American standards. Kwan claims to have yin eyes, a condition that allows her to see and speak with the ghosts of the departed, and also to have had some very interesting past lives which she shares in detail with Olivia over and over again. Olivia doesn’t much like Kwan, and the two sisters never manage to have the close relationship that Kwan so hopes for. Olivia is also having problems of a different kind, for she is going through a divorce from Simon, a man whom she once loved but now can’t stop arguing with. Though Kwan tries to push Olivia and Simon back together over and over again, it’s only when the three agree to go to China for a visit to Kwan’s old home that Simon, Olivia and Kwan discover each other again and realize the fateful place they all share in one another’s lives. Part family drama and part ghost story, The Hundred Secret Senses is Amy Tan at her best, once again telling a story that is nestled somewhere between China and America.

I’ve long been a fan of Amy Tan’s work and have read just about everything she’s ever published. I originally read this book many years ago but had pretty much lost whatever insights I had on it over time. When the opportunity came to review the book, I jumped at it, because who could refuse a stay in Tan’s lush and wonderful world once again. As I read, little bits of the book came back to me, but I have to admit that most of it took me by surprise, which was just what I had been hoping would happen. Though this is not my favorite of Tan’s books (that honor would go to The Kitchen God’s Wife) I did have an excellent time rereading this one. Tan is a master at creating the kinds of characters that you instantly care for and her plot lines are just wonderful.

Kwan and Olivia are a strange pair, and though they share no similarities or traits, Kwan is forever speaking about the likenesses between them. While Kwan is loving and forgiving, able to believe in past lives and ghosts, Olivia is more canny and headstrong; sometimes she can even be considered cruel. As the girls grow and mature together, they never lose these traits. Despite the fact that Olivia treats her shabbily, Kwan is always looking out for her younger sister and always willing to think the best of her. I liked Kwan, but Olivia was a different matter. She was often hard-hearted and emotionally cantankerous, who, when forced to deal with the softer and nobler emotions, often turned selfish and vindictive. This is true not only in her relationship with Kwan but in her relationship with Simon as well. Olivia is aghast with Kwan most of the time and resents her with a passion that Kwan refuses to notice or internalize, and with Simon, Olivia is jealous and possessive, not giving him the space or time to grieve his past losses.

As Kwan tells Olivia the story of her past life, she shares how she lived with Jesuit missionaries in 1800s China and befriended an American woman named Miss Banner, who had secrets of her own. This historical fiction component was wedged seamlessly into the modern day storyline and presented Kwan in a more full and all-encompassing light, revealing her her character, not only from days past, but in the present as well. As the historical plot line advances, we see the reason it was so hard for Kwan to be loyal to Miss Banner and why the woman came to depend on her above all others. This storyline skirted the lines between war, loyalty and romance, and was the perfect companion story to the modern day tale of Olivia and Kwan.

In the modern timeline, Olivia begins to reveal her failed relationship with Simon, and she creates a picture of a broken man and couple whom time has never been able to heal. Simon and Olivia’s relationship is plagued by the yearning Olivia suspects him of feeling for a lover from his past, and when Simon, Kwan and Olivia travel to China to visit Kwan’s homeland, each go searching for something different. As the trip progresses, resentments and doubts rear their ugly heads but begin to fall away after the unthinkable happens. The three then embark on new and tenuous courses in their relationships, and Olivia discovers a secret about herself that will not only change her relationship to Kwan, but to Simon as well.

This book is actually several stories within a story, and as it flows gracefully along, the themes of identity, family and memory are visited and revisited in the narrative. It ends on a bittersweet note, yet it’s not devoid of hope, and though some of the characters show great emotional growth, others hang on to stubborn and recalcitrant behaviors. It was a story that highlighted the importance of forgiveness and showed the delicacy and love between sisters so different from each other, yet so similar. A great read that will wrap you in Tan’s spell until the final page.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

22 comments:

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

I haven't read any Amy Tan but I've always had her on my list. Her stories just seem so drawing and intriguing that I can not for the life of me, figure out why she hasn't made it to my hands, yet. Thanks for this beautiful review!

Amy said...

I have yet to read anything by Amy Tan though I am happy to report that I do have The Kitchen Gods Wife on my tbr pile so I'm glad to hear you liked it so much! This sounds interesting, great to hear the re-read was a success!

Geosi said...

Amy Tan is one of the authors I would love to read. Congrats on your rereading as I often find rereading quite tedious.

TheBookGirl said...

I have only read The Kitchen God's Wife which I loved, and I'm interested to hear you say that was your favorite. Which of hers would you suggest next? Is this the second runner-up?

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I also have not read Amy Tan yet, although I have to say I seem to have been hitting on a lot of "bittersweet endings" lately, and I am ready for some "sweet" endings instead! :--) Beautiful review!

Wendy said...

This was the first Tan book I read - and loved it! Terrific review of a wonderful novel!

Vasilly said...

I haven't read anything by Amy Tan though her work is on my tbr list. Should I start reading this book first or start with her most famous work, The Joy Luck Club?

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

The only Amy Tan I have read is The Joy Luck Club, which I really enjoyed. Thanks for reminding me that I should try more of her work!

Anita said...

I read "Joy Luck Club" a long time ago, and Amy Tam does write beautifully, I'll have to consider this one. Wonderful review.

bermudaonion said...

I love Tan's work too. It's been a long time since I read this, and like you did before your re-read, I've lost most of my insight. I just know that I loved it.

Zibilee said...

Book Girl and Vasilly, I would definitely recommend The Joy Luck Club to you as well. It was my second favorite after The Kitchen God's Wife, and the movie is excellent as well!

nomadreader said...

I've enjoyed Amy Tan in the past too, but I don't think I read this one (oh, how I wish I had always kept such impeccable track of my reading!). I'll have to make a point to revisit her.

Nymeth said...

Can you believe I've never read any Amy Tan at all? I'll probably start with The Kitchen God’s Wife, but this sounds wonderful as well.

Darlene said...

I really enjoy Tan's writing as well although I've never read this one. I'll have to though. I find her books really capture me and hold me throughout. She's an amazing writer. Wonderful review Heather!

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I've only read one book by Amy Tan before, but I really loved it. I will have to pick this one up at some point. It sounds really interesting. Lisa See is another one of my favorite authors. Great review!

Marg said...

It's been years since I read an Amy Tan novel. I do remember reading The Kitchen God's Wife and really loving it!

Maybe I should try and find some of her later books.

Jenners said...

I haven't read a Tan book in AGES. I remember just loving The Joy Luck Club. I don't think I read this one, but (as always) you have me wanting to try it.

Suko said...

Wonderful review, Zibilee! I read The Joy Luck Club many years ago, and know that Amy Tan is a very skilled writer. This post reminds me to read more by this author in the future.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have never been disappointed by an Amy Tan book. I liked this one, but Bonesetter's Daughter was my favorite.

It's been a while since she has had a new book.

Thanks for the terrific review.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I am trying to expand back into the Adult world. This might be a great place to start

Pam said...

Amy Tan has long been one of my favorite authors and The Kitchen God's Wife is my favorite as well! How interesting that you are being asked to review a book that was published so long ago.

Audra said...

I think I own this one and should pick it up -- I enjoyed Joy Luck Club but haven't read anything else by Tan!

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