Monday, January 25, 2010

The Hundred Secret Senses

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan
Hardcover, 358 pages
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995
ISBN-13: 9780399141140
very highly recommended

Synopsis from Publisher:
The Hundred Secret Senses is an exultant novel about China and America, love and loyalty, the identities we invent and the true selves we discover along the way. Olivia Laguni is half-Chinese, but typically American in her uneasiness with her patchwork family. And no one in Olivia's family is more embarrassing to her than her half-sister, Kwan Li. For Kwan speaks mangled English, is cheerfully deaf to Olivia's sarcasm, and sees the dead with her "yin eyes."

Even as Olivia details the particulars of her decades-long grudge against her sister (who, among other things, is a source of infuriatingly good advice), Kwan Li is telling her own story, one that sweeps us into the splendor, squalor, and violence of Manchu China. And out of the friction between her narrators, Amy Tan creates a work that illuminates both the present and the past sweetly, sadly, hilariously, with searing and vivid prose.

My thoughts:

Amy Tan is a wonderful, gifted writer. She is also sometimes quite funny in The Hundred Secret Senses. Her dialogue is believable. Her gift of telling complex, compelling stories is outstanding. At first I had trouble getting interested in Kwan's Miss Banner stories but soon I was looking forward to what would happen next. The characters at the beginning are not the same as those at the end. To see such depth and progression in several characters is wonderful. This is a story about family, the living, the dead, and the connections they share. Very highly recommended


My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.
"Libby-ah," she'll say to me. "Guess who I see yesterday, you guess." And I don't have to guess that she's talking about someone dead.
Actually, Kwan is my half sister, but I'm not suppose to mention that publicly. That would be an insult, as if she deserved only fifty percent of the love from our family. But just to set the genetic record straight, Kwan and I share a father, only that. opening

After my father died, my mother kept telling everyone how he had treated her "just like a Chinese empress." She made all sorts of grief stricken promises to God and my father's grave. According to Aunt Betty, at the funeral, my mother vowed never to remarry. She vowed to teach us children to honor the Yee family name. She vowed to find my father's first born child, Kwan, and bring her to the United States.
The last promise was the only one she kept. pg. 6

I learned to make things not matter, to put a seal on my hopes and place them on a high shelf, out of reach. And by telling myself that there was nothing inside those hopes anyway. I avoided the wounds of deep disappointment. The pain was no worse than the quick sting of a booster shot. And yet thinking about this makes me ache again. How is it that as a child I knew I should have been loved more? Is everyone born with a bottomless emotional reservoir? pg. 8

To mom, Kwan was a handy baby-sitter, willing, able, and free.....So everyday after school, Kwan would latch on to me and tag along wherever I went. By the first grade, I became an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighborhood kids thought she had come from Mars. She'd say: "What M&M?" "What ching gum?" "Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?" pg. 11

The next morning I went to my mother and did what I promised I'd never do: I told her about Kwan's yin eye. pg. 15

Yet the way I remember it is the way I have always felt - that I betrayed her and that's what made her insane, The shock treatments, I believed, were my fault as well. They released all her ghosts. pg. 17

To Kwan, there are no boundaries among family. Everything is open for gruesome and exhaustive dissection - how much you spent on your vacation, what's wrong with your complexion, the reason you look as doomed as a fish in a restaurant tank. And then she wonders why I don't make her a regular part of my social life. She, however, invites me to dinner once a week, as well as to every family gathering.... pg. 22


Anna said...

Amy Tan is one of my all-time favorites. I think I need to re-read this one, as I don't remember the particulars. Glad you enjoyed it.

Diary of an Eccentric

Lori L said...

Thanks, Anna! I have read several of her books but still have several I haven't read yet.