While Amy Tan is an amazingly talented writer with a lot of great books under her belt, she is arguably most well known as the author of The Joy Luck Club, which I have yet to read. I did, however, read The Hundred Secret Senses (1996) not once but twice. I almost never do that because the second reading just feels boring. However, that wasn’t the case with this book because it was so enjoyable and rich that rereading felt more like visiting old friends than rehashing something I already knew.
While on the subject of this novel’s freshness, it bears mention that some reviewers suggested The Hundred Secret Senses was little more than a rehash of previous, very similar, plots from her earlier books. Obviously, I can’t speak for The Joy Luck Club but I did read The Kitchen God’s Wife which had a similar theme but in my view an entirely different plot. I also happened to think this novel was the markedly better of the two.
Olivia’s mother is American, her father Chinese. She comes from a “traditional American family.” At least for the most part. At the age of eighteen, Kwan entered the lives of Olivia (then four) and her family from her native China. Nothing about Kwan is American from her accent to her belief that she has yin eyes to see “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.”
These ghosts are not only a fundamental part of the story but one of the main reasons Olivia can never truly get along with her older sister.
For a while, it seems like Olivia will be able to ignore Kwan’s eccentricities and lead her own, American, life. But the more Olivia hears, the more Kwan’s old ghosts stories intrigue her. Their enticement grows when Olivia unexpectedly finds herself traveling to China with her husband, Simon, and Kwan for a magazine assignment. As the three navigate Kwan’s childhood stomping grounds, surprising connections are made between the threesome and, amazingly, with one of Kwan’s ghost stories.
The novel chronicles Olivia’s relationship with Kwan as well as her early courtship and eventual estrangement from Simon. At the same time, in alternating chapters, The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of one of Kwan’s past lives in China during the 1800s–a dramatic love story closely tied to Kwan’s (and Olivia’s) present lives.
Tan’s prose here is conversational and enticing, feeling like a friend telling a particularly juicy story at dinner or over the phone. The connections between past, present and the very distant past is seamless creating a tight narrative that, by the end of the book, weaves all aspects of the story together in a neat package.
At the same time, The Hundred Secret Senses offers an interesting commentary on assimilation and multi-cultuarism with both Olivia and Simon being half-white and half-Chinese. Although Olivia might be too old to say she comes of age in this novel, it would be fair to say she learns to accept her own identity by the novel’s completion.
While all of that makes for a dynamo on its own, my favorite aspect of this book is the way in which it deals with family relations both romantically (with Olivia and Simon) and otherwise (with Olivia and Kwan). The story ends with an optimism that suggests, if you are willing to see them, loved ones are never very far away.
Possible Pairings: The Ghost of Stony Clove by Eileen Charbonneau, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Namesake by Jhumpa Larhiri, Snowfall by K. M. Peyton